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  • Getting Published:Grant Richards and the Shaw Book
  • Michel W. Pharand (bio)

"I object to publishers: the one service they have done me is to teach me to do without them. They combine commercial rascality with artistic touchiness and pettishness, without being either good businessmen or fine judges of literature. All that is necessary to the production of a book is an author and a bookseller, without any intermediary parasite," Shaw wrote to London bookseller and amateur photographer Frederick H. Evans, not after decades of publishing experiences (and presumably woes) but in August 1895.1 Shaw's disdain is understandable. By 1895, his publishing efforts had yielded very little: two novels, Cashel Byron's Profession (1886) and An Unsocial Socialist (1887); two essays in Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889); The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891); and one play, Widowers' Houses (1893), which sold very few copies. Also discouraging were the two unauthorized U.S. editions of Cashel Byron that appeared in 1886 and two of The Quintessence in 1891 and 1894. Still to come in 1900 were unauthorized U.S. editions of An Unsocial Socialist and Love among the Artists.

Shaw may have objected to publishers as incompetent parasites, but the very close ties he maintained with them over the course of his long career were crucial to his literary and financial success. Although he worked with four main publishers (Grant Richards and Constable & Co. in England; Brentano's and Dodd, Mead & Co. in the United States), his works appeared under more than a dozen other imprints, and he corresponded with over thirty publishing houses. In hundreds of letters and postcards, Shaw doggedly tried to control the fate of his books from proofs to bookshop and to have the final word on everything from prices to print runs. He also took a special interest in his books' physical appearance and had strict requirements for typeface, type size, margins, illustrations, paper type, title pages, book design, and binding color.

Given Shaw's myriad obligations, his perennial overseeing of the technicalities [End Page 69] and legalities of publishing what, in 1925, he called his "familiar green volumes"—by then they were ubiquitous—is astonishing. Yet, despite precautionary measures to ensure airtight agreements and fair royalties, Shaw often complained of being in dire straits and, as will be seen, tried to shame or embarrass his publishers into parting with profits he considered rightfully his. He was seldom pleased with what his publishers did (or rather did not do) to sell his books, often stepping in to revise or rewrite a contract, draft a better agreement, or outline a more effective advertising strategy. All this was time-consuming, frustrating, exhausting, and at times futile.

The fact remains that Shaw went from frustrated novelist to Nobel laureate in just over twenty-five years in large measure thanks to an almost daily involvement with his publishers. I shall examine Shaw's early dealings with young, brash Grant Richards and then show how Richards's editions of Shaw's plays were provoking controversy—not over their content but over their appearance—as late as 1925.

Billions of Letters

Early in 1949, when Dodd, Mead & Co. wrote to the nonagenarian proposing an edition of his collected letters, Shaw replied:

There are billions of them; and I am adding to them every day. Not until my death can any collection of them be described [as] complete; and their collection, classification and selection would be the work of years by some fanatical Shavian, and quite out of the question as a commercial job. It has been proposed over and over again; but nothing has ever come of it. Put it out of your head.2

Shaw was wrong: the corpus of twenty-four published collections (as of early 2007) of correspondence—thirty-three volumes—is far from "complete," especially where Shaw's publishers are concerned. The four large tomes of Shaw's Collected Letters—the work of years by Dan H. Laurence, our foremost fanatical Shavian—contain a mere 133 letters to twenty-three publishers. However, there exist roughly over 500 unpublished documents written by Shaw to his publishers and many hundreds to Shaw from his publishers, some bearing Shaw's...


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