That was Then This is Now

The novel flourished as a form of entertainment during the Regency era. Pick up any copy of the Times during the period and you’ll see columns and columns of advertisements for books of all kinds. Fiction figures prominently in those announcements.

Publishing is, in many ways, not all that different in what’s left of 2009 from how publishing worked in 1809. There was, at least sometimes, a separation of publishing and printing. A publisher might not have his own printing operation. He might have to outsource (as it were) the printing. The infamous Minerva Press liked to point out that it did have its own printing operation on the premises of 22 Leadenhall Street. Today, that’s not much different. Many books are printed in China. My understanding is that the cost of shipping those books from China to the US has affected this outsourcing.

In 1809, a book, however, might well have portions printed by more than one printer. I’ve seen this personally in a book I own, an 1834 copy of G.W.M. Reynold’s very popular Mysteries of London. This book was originally issued as penny dreadfuls. Since the binding of my copy is coming apart, it’s possible to see the names of the different printers used.

The publishing business then was a lot like it is today. Writers sold their books to publishers and voila! their books were, eventually, published and sold to the public. And she was now a rich and famous author. Right? Uh, not so fast.

There was stigma attached to women who wrote novels. It wasn’t entirely proper. Many a book was published anonymously or under a pseudonym. There were men who felt critics were kinder to women authors and so published under a woman’s name. Thought it’s slightly out of our period, it’s now well known that the Bronte sisters originally published their novels under men’s names.
From the writer’s point of voice, there are some fairly crucial differences in the business now. During the Regency, an author, such as myself, did not licence her rights. Typically, she sold the copyright outright. For a writer of “Horrid Novels” such as those so lovingly published by The Minerva Press, she might sell a book for 5 pounds (in the neighborhood of $500 in today’s money). Not the way to fame and fortune, unless you could sell more than one book per year… If you were really popular (Pointing in the direction of Mrs. Radcliffe and Nora Roberts) you could, presumably, command more than the debut or midlist author rate and make quite a nice living.

The publisher had no obligation to actually print the book. Jane Austen, as we so famously know, was frustrated by just this situation. She had to buy back her book in order to get her story into print.

Piracy was common. In every direction. British publishers were notorious for translating German novels and publishing them in England with no remuneration to the original author. Novels originally publishes in England were published in Ireland, American, Scotland and the like, without any arrangement with the original publisher or the author (who, of course, no longer owned the copyright anyway, so SOL there). As early as the 1680’s Parliament was hearing complaints from publishers about the piracy of literature.

On the other hand, The Minerva Press advertised its books in the Scottish papers — Newman and Lane, the original partners of The Minerva Press, got around.

Today, the landscape is actually quite similar. Authors still, by and large, seek to sell their books to publishers. For authors, however, there are some pretty important changes, most of which are to our benefit. We don’t sell the copyright, we license the rights. If a book we sell is popular, we stand to profit from that popularity. Foreign rights are another right to sell and may or may not be retained by the author. Publishing contracts now usually contain a clause about the time a publisher has to actually put the book into print. Today, if a book goes out of print, an author can get her rights back and seek a new publisher.

It’s still tremendously hard to make a living as a writer. There are two very different sets of skill required; the first is the desire, talent and perseverance required for any creative endeavor. The second is the business acumen required. A great writer is not necessarily also possessed of the business skills. Today, writers have agents to help them through the business aspects. Thank goodness!
So. After all that, if you were to write a Horrid Novel, what would it be about? If you’d rather read in 1809, would you be looking for that next Minerva Press book?

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Megan Frampton
12 years ago

I would LOVE to write an over-the-top gothic novel with a sinister hero who makes the heroine’s spine tingle. Plus the heroine would be totally shy and withdrawn, but the hero is drawn to her, despite knowing he is bad and she is good. Sigh!

12 years ago

I love the information you all dig up and post! It’s fascinating. I would love to write a horrid novel, but not quite yet. 😛

Amy De Trempe
12 years ago

Great article. I did not know a lot of that about the publishing industry back in the 1800s. I would love to write a horrid novel.

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after

I’ve written a few woderful/horrid novels and I’m now looking for an agent or publisher. So I’m indeed looking for the next Minerva Press for my books.
Great post and a charming blog.
I’ve follow from my dashboard for sometime now and enjoy it.
You take care.

Jane Austen
12 years ago

I actually think I’ve read quite a few horrid novels lately and am looking for something with a little more umph….so to speak. One of my favorite horrid novels is Trust and Triumph, which is a P & P sequel featuring a seven-foot tall detective who steals the Darcy’s cook, an exorcism performed at Pemberley by Kitty and Mary and some random guy, a trip to the United States during the War of 1812, mirrors on the ceiling at Colonel Fitzwilliam’s Georgian plantation (he went to fight the war against those upstart Americans but fell in love with a Southern belle instead) and a strange ending in an Atlantan cemetery where Elizabeth feels a strange something. I have been dying to see a sequel to this sequel and yet not one has appeared. I was hoping that a Darcy child would be kidnapped by a Russian count and Elizabeth and Darcy would have to go undercover as servants in the count’s house to rescue their child, but instead they find a Russian icon smuggling ring run by Wickham and low and behold Lydia is actually the Russian count’s mistress. So the Darcys are found out and forced to live in the basement of St. Basil’s. But not to fear because Mr. Collins hears of his cousin’s plight and takes up arms as well as Lady Catherine De Bourgh who rush off to Russian with lots of vodka and a witch doctor/voodoo specialist that Colonel Fitzwilliam sent from the Caribbean, where he and his wife own a sugar plantation. I think I’ll refrain from the ending of the book. I am after all looking for a publisher.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Jane Austen OMIGOD are you kidding???

My Horrid novel would be about a young virginal but spunky heroine who gets kidnapped by pirates, is ravished by the pirate captain, falls in love with him but they have a terrible conflict. She gets a ship of her own, becoming a lady pirate in competition with him until the really bad pirate comes on the scene and they must join forces to thwart him.

Jane Austen
12 years ago


The first part of my post that stops with Elizabeth in an Atlantan cemetery is actually a real book called Trust and Triumph by Norma Gajte-Smith. Her husband paid for it to get published. The second part with the Russian count and the voodoo witch doctor was all me. Although I am having a hard time trying to figure out how to end the sequel to T & T. I mean I’d like to leave it open so I could do a series….. 🙂

Jane George
12 years ago

Hey Riskies,

This has nothing to with horrid novels per se:

I was driving and thinking today and I started to wonder why it is that 700 year old (or whatever) male vampires or immortals are viewed as desirable but ancient, immortal female characters, even if they look young and beautiful, are usually not only undesirable but are the villains?
I can think of exceptions, like Kresley Cole’s Valkyrie, but not many.
Are innocence and freshness qualities we value more in female heroines? Why is life experience more likely to turn a woman into a villain and a male into a more appealing character?
Am I wrong here?

Just pondering…

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

Actually my 2009 GH finalist WAS what they would call a horrid novel – a Gothic with a brooding, mysterious hero whose wife dies under mysterious circumstances, a mute child, a virtuous vicar’s daughter heroine …. well, you get the picture.

I must say that The Mysteries of Udolpho is one of my favorites!

Amanda McCabe
12 years ago

“There was stigma attached to women who wrote novels.”

I’m glad things have changed so much (snort) 🙂

When I was a teenager I read TONS of Gothic novels! I think Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt got me hooked on the genre and then I read any book I could find with cover depicting a girl in a nightgown running along a rainy cliff. I wish there were still more of them out there. And I think it would be way fun to write one. 🙂

12 years ago

Thanks for all the comments.

I loved the horrid novel ideas.

@Romantic etc. Good luck on your search. There are several good markets for publishers of “horrid” novels. Report back with results!

@jane George: Interesting Q. I think this has to do with the dynamic of what readers of Romances are looking for. I’m not sure I can do justice to the thought in a comment. It’s a very much gender role question, I think.

It’s the subject of a whole post unto itself!

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