Firstly, the Georgian author would struggle to find a publisher. Aspiring authors sought these prestigious men—for you’d be hard-pressed to find a lowly woman with their feeble brains in this profession—at the many booksellers’ shops that huddled in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. They would cart their precious manuscript to the Chapter Coffee House in Paternoster Row, where several stationers, booksellers and printers conducted their business.
If you lived in the provinces, too far from London, you had to use the postal service. The author would choose a bookseller, often after local advice, whose imprint he’d seen in newspaper advertisements or on a book’s title page.
Sterne’s accompanying letter assured the publisher that his book had both literary and commercial value. Dodsley wasn’t impressed. He refused to pay the £50 Sterne requested for the copyright. The novel was rejected by a few publishers, but eventually achieved critical acclaim.
Whether the author approached a bookseller or used the post, his reception was usually chilly.
The arrogance if the bookseller was a common grievance among novelists, as depicted in Thomas Rowlandson’s drawing of 1780-84.
Though booksellers like Edmund Curll abused their position and their writers, many in this profession were honest and prudent men. They bore the burden of publication and profit and were inundated with manuscripts, most of which had no commercial merit. The sheer volume of submissions made it hard for them to discriminate. Most stayed with established figures rather than risk their money on an unknown author.
The hapless writer often resorted to appealing to the publisher’s personal interests, such as politics, religion, children’s literature or poetry. The astute author needed to research whom he’d submit to.
From the booksellers’ perspective, the letters Robert Dodsley received over thirty years showed authors as exacting and demanding in their requests, extolling their works as the perfect creations whose publication was eagerly awaited by the entire world, and they would "allow them to pass through his firm."
Aware of the fragile ego and financial status of writers, a few booksellers formed literary circles where authors could slake their thirst with food, alcohol and conversation. Brothers Charles and Edward Dilly, who published Boswell’s Life of Johnson, were famous for their literary dinners.
When an author approached a bookseller, he could also verify the merit of his work if he found a famous author who would publicly endorse it.
Literary patronage—via a rich gentleman or the Court—was another way for an author to find publication, though this was fading by this century. Still, some thought of patronage as prostitution. Poet Charles Churchill proclaimed: "Gentlemen kept a bard, just as they keep a whore."
Subscription was another way to secure publication: collect pre-payments for a book not yet published. Dr. Johnson organized many subscriptions for unknown writers that he admired. He wasn’t always successful.
Constant rejection drove several authors to self-publish their works, which mirrors the Indie authors we have today. The uncertain road to publication over two hundred years ago seems much the same as the present.
Information garnered from: The Pleasures of the Imagination, English Culture in the Eighteenth Century, by John Brewer, 1997.
To see my extensive research into the eighteenth century, read my historical adventure set in England during the French Revolution: Betrayed Countess, available from Amazon.
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