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- Without Prejudice - 40/66 -

Union, with all the delightful potentialities of a literary lock-out. It is time, therefore, for a person without prejudice to say a word to both sides.

With the spirit which prompted the creation of the Authors' Society, Literature has nothing to do. To define Literature exactly is not easy. To say at what point words become or cease to be literature is a problem similar in kind to the sophistical Greek puzzle of saying at what point the few become many. Perhaps we shall find a solution by looking at the genesis and history of written words. Literature, we find, began as religion. The earliest books of every nation are sacred books. Herbert Spencer dwells on the veneration which the average person feels for the printed word, his almost touching belief in books and newspapers. "I read it in a book" is equivalent to saying "It is certainly true." The great philosopher has failed to see that this instinct is a survival from the times when the only books were holy books. The first book published in Europe, as soon as printing was invented, was the Latin Bible--the Mazarin Bible as it is called; and it is the Bible which is responsible for the belief in print. Despite the degradation of the printed word to-day, there is something fine in this tenacious popular instinct, as there is something ignoble in all Literature which palters with it. The Literature of every country is still sacred. The books of its sages and seers should still be holy books to it. The true man of letters always was and must always be a lay priest, even though he seem neither to preach nor to be religious in the popular sense of those terms. The qualities to be sought for in Literature are therefore inspiration and sincerity. The man of letters is born, not made. His place is in the Temple, and it is not his fault that the moneychangers have set up their stalls there. But, in addition to these few chosen spirits, born in every age to be its teachers, there is an overwhelming multitude of writers called into being by the conditions of the time. These are the artists whom Stevenson likened to the "Daughters of Joy." They are cunning craftsmen, turning out what the public demands, without any priestly consciousness, and sometimes even without conscience, mere tradesmen with--at bottom--the souls of tradesmen. Their work has charm, but lacks significance. They write essays which are merely amusing, histories which are only facts, and stories which are only lies.

The capacity of the world for reading the uninspired is truly astonishing, and the hundred worst books may be found in every bookseller's window. Would that it were of books that Occam had written: "Non sunt multiplicandi praeter necessitatem"! The men who produce these unnecessary books perform a necessary function, as things are. Why should they be less well treated than bootmakers or tailors, butchers or bakers or candlestick makers? Why should they not get as much as possible for their labours? Why should they not, like every other kind of working-man, found a Labour Union? Indeed, instead of censuring these authors for trying to obtain a fair wage, I feel rather inclined to reproach them for not having more closely imitated the methods of Trades-Unionism, for not having welded the whole writing body into a strong association for the enforcement of fair prices and the suppression of sweating, which is more monstrous and wide-spread in the literary than in any other profession whatever. Such an organisation would be met by many difficulties, for writing differs from other species of skilled labour by the immense differences of individual talent, while from professions in which there are parallel variations of skill, _e.g._, law and medicine, it differs by the fact that there is no initial qualification (by examination) attesting a minimum amount of skill. Not even grammar is necessary for authorship, or even for successful authorship. Besides which, writing is done by innumerable persons in their spare time--Literature is a world of inky-fingered blacklegs. Thus, writing admits neither of the union-fixed minimum wage of the manual labourer, nor of the etiquette-fixed fee of the professional; so that the methods of the trade union are only partially applicable to the ink-horny-handed sons of toil. But even the possible has not yet been achieved, so that the current idea of an organization of the writing classes, against which publishers have had to gird up their loins to fight, has very little foundation. There is nothing but a registered disorganisation. What the publishers are really afraid of is not a Society, but a man, and that man a middle-man? no other than that terrible bogey, the agent, who drinks champagne out of their skulls.

So much for the author-craftsman. But what of the author-priest? Do the commercial conditions apply to him? Certainly they do--with this important modification, that, while with the author-craftsman the commercial conditions may justly regulate the matter and manner of his work, with the author-priest the commercial conditions do not begin until he has completed his work. The state of the market, the condition of the public mind--these will have no influence on the work itself. Not a comma nor a syllable will he alter for all the gold of Afric[*]. But, the manuscript once finished, the commercial considerations begin. The prophet has written his message, but the world has yet to hear it. Now, we cannot easily conceive Isaiah or Jeremiah hawking round his prophecies at the houses of publishers, or permitting a smart Yankee to syndicate them through the world, or even allowing popular magazines to dribble them out by monthly instalments. But the modern prophet has no housetop, and it is as difficult to imagine him moving his nation by voice alone as arranging with a local brother-seer to trumpet forth the great tidings simultaneously at New York in order to obtain the American copyright. Even if he should try to teach the people by word of mouth, there will be bare benches unless he charges for admission, as all lecturers will tell you. People value at nothing what they can get for nothing; and, as Stevenson suggested, "if we were charged so much a head for sunsets, or if God sent round a drum before the hawthorns came in flower, what a work should we not make about their beauty!" No, the prophet cannot escape the commercial question. For, in order that his message may reach his age, it must be published, and publication cannot be achieved without expense.

[* Transcriber's note: So in original.]

Tolstoï himself, who gives his books freely to the world, cannot really save the public the expense of buying them. All he sacrifices is that comparatively small proportion of the returns which is claimed by the author in royalties; he cannot eliminate the profits of the publisher, the bookseller, etc., etc. For between the message and its hearers come a great number of intermediaries, many of them inevitable. We will assume for the purposes of our analysis that our prophet is already popular. The hearers are waiting eagerly. Here is the manuscript, there are the readers. Problem--to bring them together. This is the task of the publisher. Incidentally, the publisher employs the printer, bookbinder, etc.; but this part of the business, though usually undertaken by the publisher, does not necessarily belong to him. He is essentially only the distributor. In return for this function of distribution, whether it includes supervising mechanical production or not, the publisher is entitled to his payment. How much? Evidently, exactly as much as is made by capital and personal service in business generally. The shillings of the public are the gross returns for the book. These have to be divided between all the agents employed in producing the book--author, printer, binder, publisher, bookseller, etc. This is not literally what happens, but it is arithmetically true in the long run. How much for each? Evidently just as much as they can each get, for there is no right but might and nothing but tug-of-war. There is nothing absolute in the partition of profits: infinite action and reaction. While the costs of the mechanical part are comparatively stable, the relation of author and publisher oscillates ceaselessly; and while the cautious publisher by the multiplicity of his transactions may rely upon an average of profits, like all business men plucking stability out of the heart of vicissitude, the author has no such surety. Between merit and reward there is in literature no relation. Just as the music-hall singer may earn a larger income than the statesman, so may the tawdry tale-teller drive the thinker and artist out of the market.

The artistic value of a book is therefore absolutely unrelated to the commercial value; but such commercial value as there is--to whom should it fall if not to the author? Like the other parties, he has a right to all he can get. You will say it is very sordid to think of money; you will speak of divine inspiration; you would rather see him go on the rates; to save him from base reward you even borrow his books instead of buying them; you cannot understand why he should prefer an honest Copyright Act to a halo. Good! Put it that I agree with you. It is sordid to sell one's muse. One should be like Mr. Harold Skimpole, and let the butcher and the baker go howl. The thought of money sullies the fairest manuscript. The touch of a cheque taints. Good again! _Only_, when the great poem is written, when the great novel is done, _there is money in it_! Who is to have this money? The author? Certainly not. We are agreed his soul must be kept virgin. _But why the publisher?_ (Above all, why the American publisher?) Why not the printer? Why not the binder or the bookseller? Why not the deserving poor? None of these will be defiled by the profits. Why should the money not be used to found a Lying-in Hospital, or an Asylum for Decayed Authors, or a Museum to keep Honest Publishers in? Why should not authors have the _kudos_ of paying off the National Debt? If they are to be the only Socialists in a world of individualists, let them at least have the satisfaction of knowing their money is applied to worthy public purposes.

But I do _not_ agree with you. "The best work at the best prices" is no unworthy motto. The Authors' Society, indeed, tries to put this non-moral principle of valuation upon an ethical basis. It says, for instance, that if the publisher reckons his office expenses in the cost of production, then the author has a right to reckon his, even including any journeys or researches he may have had to make in order to write his book. But this right is not only an ethical fallacy: it is a politico-economical one, because the economical question is only concerned with the _distribution_ of the work, and the money or the heart's blood that went to make it has nothing to do with the question, while the publisher's office expenses are of the essence of the question. Some authors also claim that the publisher has no right to make successful books pay for unsuccessful. But here again he has every right. The publisher is not a piece-worker; he has to keep a large organization going, involving ramifications in every town. It is the existence of this network, of this distributive mechanism, that enables the successful book to be sold everywhere; and the publisher, like every business man, must allow percentages for bad debts and unprofitable speculations. Publishers have a right to capture the bulk of the profits of authors' first books, because they largely supply the author with his public. It is surprising how even good books have to be pressed on an unwilling world, much as cards are forced by conjurers. The number of people that select their books by their own free-will is incredibly small. On the other hand, when a popular author brings a publisher a book, it is he who improves the publisher's distributing agency, by bringing him new clients, and even sometimes strengthening his position with booksellers and libraries, by enabling him, armed with a book universally in demand, to fight against deductions and discounts throughout his business generally. And, just as the publisher may rightly depress the profits of an unknown author, so the popular author has a moral right to larger royalties--which right, however, would avail him nothing were it not backed by might. It is in the competition of rival publishers that his strength lies.

And here comes in the question of the agent. Publishers may rave as they will, but authors have every right to employ agents to save them from the unpleasant task of chaffering and of speaking highly of themselves. And it is the author who pays the agent, not the publishers, their whinings notwithstanding. The agent may indeed squeeze out larger sums than publishers like to disgorge, but how can he obtain more than the market-value? Political economy is dead against the possibility. He cannot, in fact, obtain more than the author may and frequently does obtain for himself. If a competing publisher offers a larger sum than will pay him in coin, at any rate he will not offer more than will pay him in reputation, or in the extension of his _clientèle_ on the lines indicated above. It is still only the market-value. If the reputation

Without Prejudice - 40/66

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