- Publishing History in (and out of) Perspective
The first volume of John Tebbel's History of Book Publishing in the United States appeared in 1972 and may be seen as something of a portent. Originating as it did in a teaching program, it helped to point the way to "Publishing History" as a territory ready for exploitation by academic colonists; and as its three subsequent volumes emerged during the next nine years they coincided with much busy-ness among the professional classes. (True, commemorative volumes and hagiography died hard—witness the recent journalistic celebration of the centenary of The Bodley Head—but with the founding of the journal Publishing History in Britain, and with the growing effort to trace, preserve and record book trade archives, a more coherent notion of what the subject demands is beginning to emerge.)
From such an enlightened standpoint therefore we can see that John Tebbel's History was not quite as portentous as its vast bulk suggested. There are signs right at the start that he realized this himself, for in his Preface to Volume I he ruefully acknowledged the existence of Thomas Tanselle's "Historiography of American Literary Publishing" which had appeared in Studies in Bibliography as long ago as 1965. In that essay Tanselle had called for the very opposite of what Tebbel was doing: seeking a more intensive study of the business activity of individual publishing houses, and remarking that "further general histories would, at this stage, be pointless."
John Tebbel could hardly be dissuaded from his enterprise by that belatedly discovered admonition-and indeed, when his four volumes were finally complete, they did contain an immense quantity of facts and references which make a helpful starting-point for beginners in the subject. But as a "history of publishing," they suffer from the central defect that their author did not fully grasp the implications of what he was about. For John Tebbel, "publishing" seems to be an activity which is an end [End Page 147] in itself, like playing tennis, or joinery. Fascinated by the colorful, the buccaneering—or the just plain stupid—adventures of the participants in the trade, he perceived his History as being primarily a collection of stories about lots of companies, coupled end-to-end like so many railway carriages.
Implicit in Professor Tanselle's essay, however, and in several works that preceded Tebbel (like Royal A. Gettman's study of the Bentley papers A Victorian Publisher, Cambridge UP, 1960) is a different view. For publishing is not an end in itself, but a pivotal operation, subject to a highly complex array of forces. To understand it, and to delineate its history, requires the articulation, on one side, of such disparate matters as capitalization, negotiations with authors, production methods etc., with, on the other side, publicity, marketing, distribution, and—always and always—the fickle community of book-buyers, be they single persons or large institutions. By weighting his History so heavily toward the rise and fall of individual firms, and by neglecting the continuity of events outside those firms, John Tebbel's massive panorama obscured as much as it illuminated.
This weakness in the four-volume work needs to be emphasized here because its presence accounts for the deeply unsatisfactory character of the single-volume reduction, Between Covers. In writing this survey of "the rise and transformation" of American publishing, Tebbel has again turned his back on giving us a much-needed account of the interplay of those forces that have governed the supply of books to the reading-public, and instead has sought merely to "bring together the biographical and anecdotal material [of the larger work] and retell it against . . . a briefer overall view of the industry's progress." Once again he is lured by his liking for narratives of commerce, and his 514 pages are notable more for what they don't say about publishing than for what they do. External to publishing-houses, for instance, he gives no consistent account of factors related to the geography and the transport systems of the...