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Sam Plank update 45: May 2022

By the book: Book publishers in London in 1829

Well, it took a while - I was distracted by my own retirement from full-time work and the surprisingly large amount of admin that such a change entails - but at last, here we are: the seventh - and final - Sam Plank book, "Notes of Change", has been published.  These updates will continue, as I am already knee-deep in research for my next series (the Gregory Hardiman books, set in Cambridge in the 1820s) but to mark this milestone, I thought I would take a look at the state of publishing in London in 1829 - the year in which "Notes of Change" is set.  In the capital at that time, with the advent of affordable printing presses, there were hundreds of publishers - more printers, really - of leaflets, pamphlets and treatises, but I have looked instead at a few of the more established publishers of full-length books.

For my starting point, I looked at books that were published in London in 1829.  Many of you will have heard of Sir Walter Scott, and in 1829 he brought out one of his Waverley novels, called “Anne of Geierstein, or The Maiden of the Mist”.  Not exactly a light read, it takes place mainly in Switzerland, encompassing Swiss involvement in the Burgundian wars and finishing with (*spoiler alert*) the Burgundian defeat at the Battle of Nancy in 1477.  Bringing this historical drama to Sir Walter’s readers were two publishing houses: Cadell in Edinburgh, and Simpkin, Marshall & Co in London.  By then, Simpkin, Marshall & Co were ten years old, based at Stationers’ Hall Court (off the marvellously-named Ave Maria Lane near Ludgate Hill).  They published both fiction and non-fiction titles and eventually became the largest book wholesaler in the UK.  In the late 1940s the family business was bought out by Robert Maxwell, and it went bankrupt in 1954 – a warning for us all about that man's business practices, if only we had heeded it.

Also in 1829, one of London’s most prestigious publishers – Henry Colburn – published “Sailors and Saints, or Matrimonial Manoevures” by William Glascock.  As you can tell from the jaunty title, this is a much lighter read, consisting of the conversations between various salty seadogs, such as Captain Crank and Tom Tiller.  If you have an appetite for nautical terminology, this is the book for you: “’Let me see,’ continued the captain, ‘what – three reefs out o’ the taupsles on a wind! – don’t dream of the squall that’ll catch him off the point – weather fore-taupsle-sheet not home by a fathom – jib stay in a bight too…’” and so on (and on).  (Glascock had form and knew his readership: he also wrote “Naval Sketchbook”, “Tales of a Tar” and “Land Sharks and Sea Gulls”.)  Henry Colburn started his working life as an apprentice printer and bought a circulating library in Conduit Street, from where he published his first books.  Being fluent in French (it was rumoured that he had a French mother), he published Continental novels, first in their original language and then in translation.  In 1824 he set up a dedicated publishing house in New Burlington Street, and had great success as a publisher of fiction and non-fiction books and of periodicals (including the Literary Gazette, the Court Journal and the United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal).

Not all publishers had a long and starry career.  Thomas Hurst, Edward Chance & Co got together in 1827, published a book by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1829, and disappeared in 1830.  Perhaps if they too had gone for witty, water-based anecdotes it might have been different, but Coleridge’s work was titled “On the Constitution of the Church and State according to the Idea of Each with Aids toward and Right Judgment on the Late Catholic Bill”.  230 pages of it.  I daresay Hurst and Chance had expected something more gripping from the author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”.

And in case you should think this is an all-male affair, 1829 also saw the publication in London of “Romances of Real Life” by Catherine Gore, considered by many to be the wittiest woman of her generation.  A review at the time gushed about her book: “We have already spoken in admiration of the talent displayed by the graceful authoress of these volumes [yes: there were three volumes of romances]… The appearance of these beautiful fictions gives immediate celebrity to the writer… and the reputation thus suddenly acquired will become permanent or, if it should be subject to any change, it will only be from bright to brighter.”  And the publishers of Mrs Gore obviously had a good eye: brother James and John Harper were the forerunners of today’s megalithic publishing house HarperCollins.
The cover of "Notes of Change" - isn't it glorious!
The 1829 title page of Sir Walter Scott's novel "Anne of Geierstein"
A portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge completed in 1814 by Washington Allston, and now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery
An etching of Catherine Gore, artist unknown, from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery
The lobby of 195 Broadway in New York - home to the global HQ of publishing giant HarperCollins Publishers LLC
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