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  • From Three-Deckers to Film Rights: A Turn in British Publishing Strategies, 1870–1930
  • Alexis Weedon* (bio)

In his 1985 Panizzi lectures, D. F. McKenzie claimed for bibliographers a new and wider role. They should, he said, look at “the construction of new texts and their forms” to examine “the human and institutional dynamics of their production and consumption.” 1 In disciplines from literary to media studies, he observed a shift toward the study of “dissemination and readership as matters of economic and political motive and of the interaction of text and society as an important source of cultural history.” One aspect of this contemporary movement has been the burgeoning of studies of literary adaptations to the big and small screen and, more broadly, intertextuality across media. Today we are familiar with news headlines that announce “record deals” between publishers and authors for novel and film rights and with the sight of film tie-ins in the best-seller lists. In this article I shall examine the origins of the sale of such rights and explore the relationship between Victorian publishers’ book-publishing strategies and the techniques they later used to market film options on their novels.

When the economic interdependence between novel publishers and the libraries began to fail in Britain in the 1880s, a newly competitive marketplace arose. Shrewd publishers looked to their strengths and developed innovative publishing strategies to exploit them. Many factors affected their [End Page 188] decisions, three of which I will investigate here. First, some publishers sought to make the most of their investments in authors through their agreements and through selling the subsidiary rights in their work. Second, careful price structuring and timing of the release of each edition was crucial for them to sustain revenue and reap the full economic potential of the work. And, third, publishers were able to capitalize on the cost savings of the more efficient printing technologies and cheaper raw materials by marketing the text in a range of formats. These factors effected a change in industry practices, moving them from the Victorian mode of three-volume novel publishing in the 1870s to a recognizably modern strategy of marketing film rights in the early years of the twentieth century.

The period 1870 to 1930 saw the emergence of the cheap edition and the paperback as a significant force within the marketplace. New pricing and promotional systems and serialization in newspapers and magazines began to put the novel within reach of the majority of the British public. In these sixty years, publishers expanded their production of cheaper editions and—as trade with the colonies and the United States developed—became more conscious of the importance of coordinating their book publications with serializations. The strategies that emerged in this period through the purchase and repurchase of book and subsidiary rights paved the way for the agreements that many publishers made with the film agencies and companies of the 1920s and 1930s. These early examples of rights sales and staggered publication foreshadowed modern professional practices.

One firm that was breaking away from earlier nineteenth-century business habits was the publisher Chatto and Windus. An exploration of its relations with two of its novelists, Wilkie Collins and Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée), shows how the publisher found innovative ways to utilize the economies of mass production and make the most of his investment in copyrights to capture transient popular tastes. The firm’s practices reveal an awareness of the ups and downs in the commercial value of novels and an experimentation with strategies for refreshing market interest.

Simon Eliot, Guinevere Griest, and John Sutherland among others have charted the decline in the three-volume novel in nineteenth-century Britain and linked it with the fading power of the circulating libraries. 2 After the financially cozy relationship between the libraries and publishers began to fail, publishers had to develop a sharper economic edge to survive. Griest explains how, in June 1894, Mudie and Smith put pressure on the book trade to reduce their prices and give the libraries exclusive rights in newly published novels. Their ideas were greeted with consternation by booksellers, authors, and publishers who, while largely in favor of...

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pp. 188-206
Launched on MUSE
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