“I see, cried he, you are unacquainted with the town, I'll teach you a part of it. Look at these proposals, upon these very proposals I have subsisted very comfortably for twelve years. The moment a nobleman returns from his travels, a Creolian arrives from Jamaica, or a dowager from her country seat, I strike for a subscription.”
...And so George, the Philosophic Vagabond in Goldsmith’s ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ was introduced to the idea of subscription and the ways to abuse it.
Subscription was a solution to a problem that faced writers in the early to mid eighteenth century, how to make money from writing without a system of court patronage in a time when the buying public was not yet robust enough to support the massive (over) abundance of people wishing to write.
In a lecture by Jerry White (author of ‘London: A Great and Monstrous Thing) one of the key points was that although literacy was surprisingly high, especially in urban centres, and although books were becoming an important topic of polite conversation, the number of writers outstripped the number of readers and that the key for a writer was to be a varied and enterprising as possible.
One of the eighteenth century’s most enterprising writers, Alexander Pope, created his secure foundation (and cool grotto) by the publication of a translation of ‘The Iliad’ by subscription. Instead of creating the work under the auspices of one patron or on spec for potential buyers, he sent a proposal for the work to a large number of people who pre-ordered copies. They would pay part now and part on receiving the book and the first part of money secured the author in his position and paid for the creation of the book. In this way, Pope gained about £9,000 which gave him an autonomy to write what he wished and how he wished it.
Of course, this system was open to the abuse that Goldsmith mentioned. It was possible to have a wonderful proposal, occasionally reprinted to keep it fresh and to go about securing that first sum of money without having to put the graft in to finish the book. Johnson was accused in print of playing the same trick, it taking nine years between his proposal of the plays of Shakespeare and its completion.
Charles Churchill ribbed him with the words, “He for Subscribers baits his hook, and takes their cash—But where’s the Book?”
Johnson is interesting because although his his Shakespeare did have an element of subscription, he was more often commissioned to write (especially his larger works) by conglomerations of booksellers. Goldsmith too was given most of his projects by Newbery, a bookseller and it was only for his poems (like ‘The Traveller’ and ‘The Deserted Village’ that he presented off his own initiative.
One writer who started his writing life by writing on commission to a bookseller but ended it by selling almost wholly by subscription was Christopher Smart. As a young, hip writer he was commissioned to write for ‘The Student’ his own ‘Midwife’ and later for the absurd 99 years contract for the Universal Visitor. Shortly afterwards he was committed for eight years in various mental asylums where he emerged with a number of works and a burning wish to write.
In his collected poems by Norman Callan, the book of poems after his incarceration far exceeds the one from before. In that time he published his ‘Song of David’; ‘Psalms of David’, ‘Hymns and Spiritual Songs’, ‘Parables,’ ‘Verse Horace’, ‘Phaedrus’ and the ‘Hymns for the Amusement of Children’ - each by subscription. Smart died imprisoned for debt.
Obviously then, subscription had it’s flaws for both writer and reader but it did prove an invaluably flexible and potentially lucrative way to fund books and new work, especially when combined with other methods.
In some ways the position of the writer today is similar to how it was in the early and mid eighteenth century. The patronage system of grants and arts funding is being savagely diminished and although there are many readers available, the demand is outstripped by those with something to write. More recent media formats have edged the book (and particularly the novel) from the centre of popular discussion and debate. In response the publishers are falling back on the safe option of a number of relied upon authors and famous names.
No wonder subscription is back but this time it’s called crowdfunding.
I am not normally on the forefront of modern technology or process but I’ve been a big fan of crowdfunding, having been involved in the funding of a play; two CD’s and a book. I have had great pleasure in participating in a small way to the creation of things and I feel some measure of satisfaction when I hold those things in my hand.
The book is particularly special. About a year ago I took part in crowdfunding a book called ‘The Gin Lane Gazette’ through the company Unbound. It’s a joyful ride through the mid to late eighteenth century through the lens of a Grub Street journal. One of my favourite pages was not written by the author, it’s a list of names from those who subscribed and near the bottom (with a long s) is the name Adam Stevenfon, and I smile whenever I see that.
It’s about time I reviewed that book - coming soon.