How to get published in Elizabethan England by Anna Castle

Posted by on Sep 1, 2014 in 16th Century England, Featured Book, Historical Tidbits | Comments Off on How to get published in Elizabethan England by Anna Castle

jamesFirst, find a patron; the bigger, the better.

A powerful patron might reward you with a handsome gift, possibly money, maybe even room and board in a country manor during the plague season. He or she — women, like Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, were also important patrons of the arts — might protect you if your work is found objectionable by anyone.

Just name the patron to whom you aspire in your dedication and hope they pick up on it. Francis Bacon, never afraid to reach for the heights, dedicated his Advancement of Learning to King James I.

Second, apply plenty of butter.

Important people, then as now, have an insatiable appetite for flattery. Here’s a bit of Bacon’s dedication to King James:

“I have been touched — yea, and possessed — with an extreme wonder at those your virtues and faculties, which the philosophers call intellectual; the largeness of your capacity, the faithfulness of your memory, the swiftness of your apprehension, the penetration of your judgment, and the facility and order of your elocution…”

It goes on and on, and then on some more. Bacon was forty-four when he published that book. He had been through several political wringers and learned his lessons well.

Third, hook up with a bookseller. frontispiece

At the start of the century, printers did everything from identifying publishable works to producing the volumes to selling the edition, both wholesale and retail. Over the course of the century, the balance shifted so that printers more often just printed the pages. Booksellers did the rest. They acted much like modern publishing companies, brokering every stage of the production and sale of a book. Although, the biggest players in the Elizabethan book world were still a few printers who held very profitable monopolies, like the exclusive right to print the ABC with the Little Catechism, used in every school in the country.

The bookseller or printer was supposed to register every book with the Stationers’ Company. This was the earliest form of copyright and was intended first, to protect the printer from competition and second, to give the government an opportunity to object to the content. Authors had no rights. They were lucky if they got paid (which is why they needed patrons.) The law required registration of all books, ballads, and pamphlets, but only about two-thirds actually were.

That’s typical for this period. Many stern edicts were issued from the Star Chamber and other government agencies, but there was little enforcement and rampant inflation made the fines worth the gamble. It cost 6 pence to register a book; the fine for failing to register might be as much as 2 shillings. A bookseller could be fined 4 pence for keeping his shop open on a holiday. But you could sell a catch-penny pamphlet for 2-4 pence and if your topic was hot enough, you might sell hundreds. The writer got 40 shillings (480 pence = 2 pounds), so we can assume the printer or bookseller was making at least 10 times that amount in profit. (For comparison, a shoemaker might make 4 pounds a year.)

Writers complained bitterly and at length about their poor compensation. Thomas Nashe wrote, “But cap and thankes is all our Courtiers payment: wherefore, I would counsell my frends to be more considerate in their Dedications, and not cast away so many months labour on a clown that knowes not how to use a Scholer.”

Some things never change.

Anna Castle, September 1, 2014

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