Intellectual Affairs

Old-School Publishing

Greedy publishers, overworked scholars, unnecessary books and too much hype...Scott McLemee reports on academic publishing, circa 1600.

May 2, 2012

After a decade of reading papers and attending panels on the Crisis in Scholarly Publishing (it feels established and official enough now to deserve capital letters) I’m dubious about the prospect of ever writing another column on the topic. It starts to feel like Chevy Chase interrupting with a bulletin that Generalissimo Francisco Franco is, in fact, still dead.

Scholarly publishing isn’t dead, of course -- although at this stage, as with the Generalissimo, a major reversal of fortunes would appear unlikely. Ian Maclean’s Scholarship, Commerce, Religion: The Learned Book in the Age of Confessions, 1560-1630 (Harvard University Press) evokes a publishing world so different from the 21st century’s that visiting it seems like a vacation from today’s too-familiar circumstances.  

Maclean, a professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Oxford, identifies the period covered by his study (which started out as a series of lectures at Oxford) as the late Renaissance. Maybe so. Clearly publishers were catering to a much-expanded audience that had acquired a taste for humane letters. A stable of freelance philologists cranked out new editions of ancient works, as well as translations. The public able to parse a page of Attic text was much smaller than that reading Latin, there was still a demand for books in Greek -- if only as a kind of erudite furniture, or for use as an implied credential. You imagine someone going a doctor or lawyer for the first time and  spying the volume of Aristotle open on his desk, then thinking, “Wow, this guy must be good.”

But the big money, it sounds like, was in controversy – in pamphlets and collections of documents from the combat between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and between Protestants and one another. Theological argument in the era of Luther, Calvin, and Erasmus sought to bring the reader to the one true faith, but the now the line between polemic and character assassination had been blurred beyond recognition. If, say, a Calvinist scholar went over to the Vatican’s side, it was fair game for ex-colleagues to embarrass the apostate by publishing a volume of letters he’d written mocking Catholicism.

And -- more to the point – such a book would sell. The fracturing of the public along religious lines divided the publishing world into distinct “confessionalized” sectors -- each demanding its own editions of scripture, of course, but also of patristic and writings, and of historically significant documents backing up its claims to be the one true faith. Technology rendered the mass-production of books possible, while theology made it urgent.

Learned books in this period “fell into two broad classes,” Maclean explains: “textbooks for schools and universities, on the one hand, and more specialized humanist editions, historical, legal, theological, and medical works on the other.” The publishers themselves didn’t fall into corresponding categories; most did some of each.

Nor was the connection between scholarly publishing and academe all that close – least of all geographically. “While it was recognized that printing shops were a sign of the health of a country’s scholarship as much as the institutions of higher learning,” says Maclean, “this does not seem to have weighed much in their location.” Most presses “were based in cities without universities, and a surprising number of university cities were without printers who could compose in ancient languages.” Proximity to a university counted far less than the availability of raw material and skilled labor, not to mention access to trade routes and a strong patron.

Place of publication was also metadata: it signaled what religion confession it reflected, depending on which faith the authorities there favored. But the city indicated on a title page might or might not tell you where it was actually printed. Someone in Geneva publishing an anti-Calvinist pamphlet would have good reason to claim it came from Venice.  

Besides textbooks, there was another sort of publishing aimed at the student market: editions of notes taken during the lectures for certain courses. Maclean says that a reputable publisher would clear this with the professor. That suggests, by implication, that shadier operations didn’t. (As far as I know, this practice was still going strong through at least the 19th century. We have information about some of Kant’s lectures thanks to publishers serving the needs of undergraduates who couldn’t make it to class.)

The scholarly publisher of the early 16th century was likely to be something of a Renaissance humanist himself, playing a role of servant to “the new learning.” Drawing on publishers’ catalogues, reports of the Frankfurt book fair (where the number of titles more than doubled between 1593 and 1613) and the records of titles found in scholars’ libraries following their deaths, Maclean recreates something of the prevailing routines and difficulties of scholarly publishing in this era.

The correspondence between publishers and authors (and the grumbling of each to third parties about delayed manuscripts or shoddy workmanship) are a reminder of the micropolitics of intellectual reputation in the days when getting work into print was considerably more difficult than it would soon become. But scholarly publishing was not at all a matter of academic credentialing. “No one in the late Renaissance obtained professional validation in a university through publication with distinguished publishers or in reputed publications as is done now,” writes Maclean. “The pressure scholars felt to achieve publication, if it did not arise from their desire to promote themselves and their subject, was rhetorically attributed to their patron, whose prestige they enhanced….”

The nobility of scholarship, then, depended on the scholarship of the nobility.  But over time the publishing field was overtaken by “a new breed of entrepreneurs who were not so much involved in the production of knowledge as its marketing.” Every book is, after all, something of a gamble: the investment in publishing it involves risk, and the skills required to identify a valuable work of scholarship are distinct from those of keeping the enterprise solvent. More and more publishers entered the field, publishing more and more material; and for a long time things continued more or less profitably, in spite of the wars and plagues and whatnot.

By the 1590s, a satirist was complaining about the flood of shoddy material: Publishers were more interested in best-sellers than in serious scholarship. Volumes went to market as the revised, expanded, corrected edition of some work, even though the only thing new about it was the title page. Hacks were turning out commentaries on commentaries, and worse, people were buying them, just to add them to their collections.

Things were not, in short, like the good old days. On the other hand, neither were they as stable as they appeared for quite a while. The capacity for mass producing books developed more rapidly than market of readers could absorb them (or at least buy them). The bubble started to deflate in various fields in the the early 17th  century. In 1610 you’d be be turning out treatises as fast as they could be typeset, which only meant that by 1620 you had a warehouse full of stuff in neo-Latin that nobody wanted to read. 

Not to say that the Crisis in Scholarly Publishing has been going on for 400 years. Things bounced back at some point. Maclean does not say when, or how. But whatever happened after 1630 had to be a mutation, rather than just a market correction: a huge restructuring of institutions and of fields knowledge, to say nothing of the changes in what and how people read, and why. The expansion of readership preferring work in the vernacular was undoubtedly a factor, but was it sufficient?

Perhaps Maclean will pursue the matter in another book. On the strength of Scholarship, Commerce, and Religion, I certainly hope so.


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