What today’s publishers could learn from Charles Dickens
January 23, 2012 | 9:40 pm
FutureBook has a post looking at the relevance of Charles Dickens to present-day publishing. Dickens, Martyn Daniels writes, wrote and published many stories in installments in pamphlets prior to publishing them in completed form. The ad revenue from the installments helped to support him while he published the final version, and fueled interest in the final form. (Indeed, there’s a famous story about the ship carrying the next installment of one such work to America being mobbed by readers who wanted to learn if a certain character survived.)
We find ourselves again asking why we are not publishing digitally by instalment today? The Keita novels in Japan thrive through instalment and Stephen King and others have also ventured down this digital route, but why hasn’t a publisher grabbed this clear digital opportunity by the throat? Is it down to the way many write today? Has the publishing and editorial process got in the way of the instalment? Is it just too revolutionary?
Interestingly, serial publication was the way that many of the early writing circles on the Internet worked, as writers would write chapter-sized chunks of their stories and post them to the mailing lists or newsgroups they used. (See my entries on “Paleo E-Books”) And it’s also how some of the new experimental fan-sourced projects such as Shadow Unit are going. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller did this with the rough draft form of two of their books, and Diane Duane did it a bit less successfully with one of hers. And for that matter, Baen has been doing something of the sort (albeit on a much more coarsely-grained scale than a chapter a week) for over ten years. So it’s not as if nobody does it. But it seems that the support network to allow commercializing it on a broad scale hasn’t really been built yet.
Daniels also notes that Dickens “embraced the new”, making significant use of new technologies such as railways, telegraphs, postal services, and even world travel. And he “enhanced his works” with illustrations (though given that everybody did that back then, I don’t think that should really count specifically for Dickens). And he wrote in the language of the people, using rendered dialect to represent the class and origins of his peoples. (Though I heard an amusing anecdote the other day that suggests Dickens was very good at writing women in public, but his scenes that involved just women alone with each other fell flat, since naturally Dickens had never had the chance to observe how women behaved alone together.)
But Daniels missed one rather important point of Dickens’s relevance to today, and that has to do with how he fought piracy. At the time Dickens’s books were in print, the US didn’t recognize international trade copyrights. Consequently, a lot of US publishers were ripping off Dickens, grabbing his books off the latest ship and printing up cheap, pirated editions of their own—from which Dickens received not one red cent.
Dickens knew that he couldn’t expect either his or our government to do anything about stopping piracy, so he put in the effort himself to outcompete the pirates—he came to American shores and did reading circuits, building a face-to-face relationship with his fans. And he contracted with American publishers to offer inexpensive officially-endorsed (and royalty-paying) versions of his books.
Given that today authors and publishers find themselves and the government powerless to stop digital piracy, perhaps they should take Dickens’s example and meet the pirates on their own ground.