During a recent visit to Hay-on-Wye, I bought a book first published in 1935 and entitled The Book World -- a New Survey. This is a collection of essays upon various aspects of the book trade, as it then was, by a fair cross-section of the good and the great of the day.
First things first. This book has lasted remarkably well, and it still looks good today. A hardback, measuring 6" x 4.5", it sits comfortably in the hand. There are wide margins, only 29 lines to the page, and the print is, at a guess, 12 point. The paper has hardly deteriorated at all. How many of today's books will look as good in 2075 I wonder?
Many things, it turns out, have changed since 1935; but some remain the same. As early as page 3, for example, we learn that libel is a worry, and is thought to be something of a racket. Nothing new there, then. 'Obscenity' was also a problem; no one had any clear idea of how far you could go, but some people went as far as Dartmoor, without so much as a 'fuck' to show for it.
Another concern was over-production. Would you believe it, there were as many as 13,000 or 15,000 books a year being published! Far too many for anyone to keep up with. Where would it all end?
Retail bookselling was thought to be hazardous. 'The idea that the selling of new books is a lucrative undertaking is a fallacy'; and the idea of bookselling chains was not welcomed: 'a chain-system might end in a book trade in chains'.
Some figures about bookshops are provided. These are based on the accounts of 19 bookshops over a 3-year period; the average turnover was £17,706 a year, yielding an average net profit of only £71 per year. But most of those bookshops, it appears, sold secondhand books as well as new ones. Bookshops which sold only new books actually incurred an average 4% loss on a turnover of £10,733.
The chapter on authorship suggests that the importance of authors to the book world 'is often underrated'. Ha! It's taken a while to get that sorted then. And the chapter wisely points out that an early triumph for an author can be curiously demoralising.
Another chapter deals with the literary agent. The literary agents of this world came into being largely because, in the late nineteenth century, copyright law was a mess, leaving authors grossly exposed to unscrupulous publishers (yes, there were some; hard to believe, isn't it?). The agents very soon rose to 'an impregnable position'. Publishers, apparently, found it a nasty shock to be 'up against someone whose skill in driving a bargain equalled if not excelled their own'.
This situation has, however, led to literary agency becoming the 'happy hunting-ground of the unscrupulous adventurer, who saw in it an easy and safe way of picking the pockets of authors with more money than sense'. The authors of 1935 were not, it seems, more gullible than most people, but they were 'more susceptible to flattery, however crude or obvious'. (Dear me. That surely isn't true, Deirdre, is it? When that agent chappy Blenkinson-Smythe tells me that my work displays genius in abundance, he is simply telling the honest truth -- isn't he?)
The publishers were also having a hard time. Even in 1935 they were being sent an 'astonishing amount of illiterate and unintelligent writing', but practised readers spent little time on it.
One major change since 1935 has been the disappearance of the so-called circulating library. These were commercial operations, one of the largest being run by Boots the Chemist; they enabled readers to borrow the very newest books, usually well before they were available in the local public (i.e. free) library, on payment of a fee per book or per year.
In this sector of the trade there is also complaint about over-production. The average reader, it seems, consumes only two books a week, and there are nearly 15,000 a year being published. Oh, calamity. It makes life awfully difficult. Or they thought it did at the time.