Publishing and Subscriptions

Jane refers to specific books on a couple of occasions, and says something to the effect that she or a member of her family would buy a subscription to the book. What does this mean? Does she get the book itself, or the right to read a circulating copy?

Publishing a book by subscription was one of the ways a book could be published in the late 18th/early 19th century. The other ways were;

1) Publication by profit sharing.
Here the publisher paid for the costs of producing the book, and after deduction of these expenses, shared any resulting profit with the author on an agreed profit share basis.

2) Publication by sale of copyright.
JA did this with Northanger Abbey and managed to buy the copyright back -eventually, in order to get the work published (though this did not happen until after her death.) I love her letter to the publisher, Crosby, under the alias of Mrs. Ashton Dennis which allowed her to sign the missive

“I am etc, etc,
M.A.D.”

I’ll bet she was!

3) Publishing on Commission.
Here the author published at “her own risk”. The author was responsible for the cost of the printing process, and the advertising. If the book did not sell enough copies to cover the costs (including a 10 per cent commission to the publisher on every book sold) then the author had to make good the difference out of her own pocket.

4) Publication by subscription.
Subscribers to a book paid money in advance for a book, and a list of their names appeared in the book when it was published.
Jane Austen was a subscriber to the first volume of “Camilla”(1796) by Fanny Burney, and is listed as such (Miss J Austen, Steventon).

It is interesting to note that as an unmarried female JA did not encounter the type of problems in her contracts with publishers that her married sister-authors often did. Charlotte Smith, as a married woman was not able to enter into a legally binding contract for publication of her novel, “Desmond” (1792).

The contract had to be signed by her husband, Benjamin Smith, who was residing in Scotland under an assumed name to evade detection by his creditors. Indeed it was his inability to cope financially, which prompted Mrs. Smith to publish books, in order to provide for her children!

Some books were published by “subscription”, which meant that people signed up in advance (and paid at least some money in advance) for a book that was due to come out, possibly in parts. Jane Austen subscribed to Frances Burney’s Camilla in this way, and “Miss J. Austen, Steventon” is included among the names of subscribers printed in a list at the beginning of the book.

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