The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing

September 29, 2011

The great literary question in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War concerned the morality of the emerging and powerful publishing industry. Here, Michael Everton explores the tensions inherent in an industry of "cultural bankers" - as Pierre Bourdieu put it - along with authorship, as early print culture in the US was transformed from a gentlemanly pursuit into a hard-nosed modern business.

The Grand Chorus of Complaint takes its name from the uproar in 19th-century US literary circles caused by publishers' focus on reprinting cheap UK imports and putting profit ahead of national literary culture. There ensued a "chronic feud between authors and publishers", Everton recounts, as they fought over how the business should be conducted. Publishers' behaviour reflected challenging economic situations, as in the Civil War era where a difficult market was tackled by "trimming lists and deferring new titles" and, as author Gail Hamilton discovered, by sneakily lowering authors' existing royalty rates - leading to a fight immortalised in her 1870 work A Battle of the Books.

Everton's close reading of the language of complaint in his many fascinating case studies illuminates the precise nature of the author-publisher relationship. Herman Melville suffered the vagaries of the market, with advances refused while he insisted on writing works such as that "wicked book", Moby-Dick. Believing that serious writers should be supported by the trade, Melville described the publisher "as a sort of ogre, whose den is strewn with the bones of authors, and who quaffs wine out of their skulls". In Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853), he criticised the hypocrisy of antebellum capitalism in applying the language of Christian ethics to ruthless managerial practices.

Most of the problems stemmed from the absence of an international copyright law. This enabled US publishers to reprint popular British books, pay nothing to the author, and sell them at low prices in large numbers at great profit. Home-grown talent was ignored as the latest UK best-sellers were rushed out into the marketplace.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Punch described American publishers as a "pestilent tribe" for profiting unjustly from the labours of others. On a US book tour in February 1848, Charles Dickens sounded off about the immorality of commercial US publishers who made a fortune reprinting his best-selling novels, while he received not one cent.

A copyright reform movement soon rose up, consisting of a small but vociferous group of authors who, Everton argues, "ignored the reality of literary property". They "cast authors as the persecuted moral authority in a nation ruled...by the economic expediency of businessmen". Everton unpicks the developing discourse of their argument with its focus on the "natural rights" of authors and the author-publisher "war". He shows just how ineffective their hectoring and hyperbolic rhetoric was in changing the minds of the trade, government and readers. Despite reprinting being fully legal, "piracy" became a popular metaphor used by reformers.

More distastefully, they allied the immorality of the book trade with that of the slave trade. However, the view of the public was that this was the "hobbyhorse of a few spoiled authors" and a tax on "the very many who read for the benefit of the very few who write".

In the end it was not being branded as "thieves" or as pathetically submissive to UK cultural imperialism that changed publishers' minds, it was concern about future-proofing their business. Edgar Allan Poe criticised publishers for "unblushingly pick(ing) the pockets of all Europe".

It is an interesting image when we think of the recent Google Books Settlement Agreement furore, the complexity of digital rights and the many discussions to come about the ethics of publishing.

The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing

By Michael J. Everton. Oxford University Press. 256pp, £40.00. ISBN 9780199751785. Published 7 July 2011

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