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  • Shaw’s Books
  • Don B. Wilmeth (bio)
Michel W. Pharand, ed. Bernard Shaw and His Publishers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. 352 pp. $65 cloth.

From Shaw’s earliest attempts to get published (his five novels, 1879–83) until the end of his long writing career, his communications with his numerous publishers repeatedly emphasize his unwavering belief that the author must take care of himself and that if he were to make any money from his published work, the method of doing so would also be his responsibility.

As early as 1895, Shaw wrote to a bookseller that the one service publishers had done for him was to teach him “to do without them. They combine commercial rascality with artistic touchiness and pettishness, without being either good business men 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.” In time Shaw would almost always get his way with his various publishers (his books appear under more than thirty imprints). He would tell them very specifically how his work should be printed, what paper and fonts should be used, what the page layout should look like, how they must be bound, copyrighted, priced, marketed, and so on (no detail is missed).

Yet his general opinion and judgment of publishers’ shortcomings changed little over his sixty-year writing career. In due course Shaw, who found most publishers incompetent, manufactured his books himself (using a Scottish printer) and, rather than take a royalty, associated with most publishers on the basis of commission (“being neither a born imbecile nor ignorant and incapable of business”). Shaw’s business acumen, as these letters illustrate time and again, was undoubtedly a major factor in his becoming one of the last century’s best-selling authors. [End Page 260]

Shaw undeniably enjoyed his frays with publishers (primarily five of them) and his numerous victories. Certainly, not surprisingly, he rarely gave into their suggestions or demands. And although Shaw became close friends with a number of his publishers, most must have winced when another letter from him arrived (despite their frequent witty presentation), for friendship never interfered with business. Shaw is quoted as having said: “It’s art when you are writing a play but business when you are selling it.”

Shaw’s enormous knowledge of the publishing business and the art of printing constantly amazes as one reads the 187 letters (165 from Shaw; 90 previously unpublished, 72 of those by Shaw) to twenty-five publishers in this volume. Given the sheer delight he seems to have experienced telling a publisher how a book (and especially a play) should be printed and how to do its business, one wonders how Shaw would have contended in this digital age, with traditional typesetting a thing of the past, books proofed and manufactured in India or China, and authors having less and less to say about the publishing process.

Bernard Shaw and His Publishers is the seventh volume in the series, under the general editorship of L. W. Conolly, entitled Selected Correspondence of Bernard Shaw. This volume is expertly edited by Michel Pharand, currently director of the Disraeli Project at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, general editor of this annual, and author of Bernard Shaw and the French (2000). This volume is unlike the majority of previous ones in the series that focus on correspondence between Shaw and another significant individual (or in one instance, two individuals). Pharand’s volume deals extensively with letters to (and some from) numerous individuals (mostly publishers) that illuminate Shaw’s notions on printing, publishers, and publishing. As Pharand explains, Shaw dealt primarily with five publishers: Grant Richards, Constable, and Penguin in England, and Brentano’s and Dodd, Mead in the United States. As one would expect, most letters in this collection are to these five concerns (or individuals within them). They are ordered chronologically with clarifying headnotes furnished by the editor along with carefully considered and clearly presented notes following almost every letter. These are exceptionally well done, with no significant allusion ignored and references in the letters thoroughly explicated. All in all, the editing of this volume...


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pp. 260-261
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