Book-trade. From the earliest scratching upon a beech chip to the latest edition de luxe is a far cry, and yet that is what an account of the book trade would amount to if we take an historical or stratical view of it; while a topographical survey would imply a history of the whole process of book-making from its first inception as a germ in the author's mind, to its final appearance fully clothed upon the drawing-room table, with all its ramifications, and all the vexed questions that complicate it, including the agitating question of whether the author exists for the publisher, or the publisher for the author - a question about as easily solved as the other important question of Which was first, the egg or the hen?
The question of book-producing divides itself into two simple parts. The writing of the book, which is the author's part of the matter, and would be the whole of it if the author did not desire to be read; and the bringing the book to the public, or the public to the book, which is often the most difficult part of the process. It is to this part of the question, perhaps solely, to which a consideration of the book-trade ought entirely to confine itself. Shakespeare tells us that "that book in many's eyes doth share the glory, that in gold clasps locks in the golden story" - and it is certain that the success of a book - not merely as a paying speculation - does depend in a great measure upon accessories of type, paper, binding, convenience of handling, and the like. In the days before printing, when the copies of a book had to be laboriously made, slowly one by one, and when, as the wise man of old said, of making of books there was no end - books were a luxury of the great and rich, and as much attention was paid to the setting of the jewel as to the jewel itself. Hence the beautiful examples of type and binding, and of artistic accompaniments that made the reputation of the great printing and publishing houses of the Low Countries. Who, that has seen them, has not been lost in admiration before the exquisite plates of the Plantin Museum, as they lie just as the printer left them in his house three hundred years ago. And it is this wonderful artistic finish that leads to the enthusiasm of the book-collector, an enthusiasm looked on by some as the very acme of madness.
The publishing of a book advances it one stage beyond the author; but much still depends upon the wholesale dealer, and as much more upon the retailer, to ensure its success, always supposing the book to be worthy of success, whether from its intrinsic value, or from its happening to hit a particular taste, or want, or from whatever cause. But all these various topics, as to what conditions should exist between author and publisher, between publisher and wholesale dealer, and between the last and the retail trade, are far too complicated and involved to be treated otherwise than separately. One great writer of the day has tried the experiment of being his own publisher. How far that is a success is unknown, but it would be a dangerous precedent to follow. At any rate, an author had better make sure of being as great a writer as the gentleman in question, and also wait till his reputation is established, before trying it.
There is one part of the book-trade, and an important one, yet to be mentioned. That is the secondhand trade. The secondhand book-stall plays a great part in real life, as well as in comedy and in romance, and embraces all kinds of business, from the ld. box up to the work of attending notable sales in all parts of the globe, and buying rare copies for thousands of pounds. Many of our greatest booksellers have begun from the secondhand book-stall, and many great book-makers have testified their gratitude to the odd minutes and half hours of gratuitous reading afforded by the bookstall.
In the earlier days of literature the part of the publisher was in a great measure played by the noble or royal patron, who parted with his gold pieces, and took the risk attendant on all book-producing in return for the glory reflected upon himself by his connection with the book, but at all times there has been a considerable mixture of functions among the publishers, and booksellers, and book-writers; and one has only to read of the transactions and literary meetings of Johnson and his contemporaries in their booksellers' shops; or of the relations of Scott, Thackeray, George Eliot, Miss Bronte, and others, with their publishers; or of the many publishers and booksellers who have made themselves a name as writers, to see that, in spite of questions of conflicting claims and disputes, union of the three branches is as essential to a healthy strength as it was in the case of the bundle of sticks in the fable.