- Rogue Publisher: The ‘Prince of Puffers’. The Life and Works of the Publisher Henry Colburn by John Sutherland and Veronica Melnyk
Perhaps a question mark should have been inserted after the second word of this book’s title, as it attempts to establish whether or not Henry Colburn was actually as much a rogue as alleged by contemporary authors and rival publishers. ‘A sure-footed pioneer, no less’ is the final verdict handed down by the authors, but only after a detailed consideration of his activities as is possible given that his records were destroyed in the Blitz.
Both authors have written on Colburn before. John Sutherland, Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London, contributed an article to Publishing History in 1986 while Veronica Melnyk produced a doctoral thesis in 2002 at the University of Birmingham on Colburn which is freely available from that university’s e-theses repository. Dr Melnyk is now Prioress of the Olivetan Benedictine Sisters of Jonesboro in Arkansas, a fact which might account for her taking second place on the title page.
The question of Colburn’s alleged roguery is not the only mystery of his life. The precise date of his birth in 1784/5 remains uncertain. Rumours of his being of illegitimate aristocratic issue are at least plausible given the anonymous source of the substantial capital needed for his first business enterprise, the English and Foreign Circulating Library established in 1806, based off Bond Street in the prosperous West End of London. Running such a library gave him a close enough knowledge of his customers’ taste for him to begin publishing the following year.
As might be expected from a habitué of Mayfair he was no pioneer of cheap print. His books were expensive, and a speciality was the three-volume novel, a format which accounted for over a third of his long career’s output. It was only much later that he published cheap editions from his accumulated copyrights. [End Page 408]
‘Silver fork’ novels which were Colburn’s bread and butter are rarely great literature, but the man who published Darwin’s Journal of the Beagle voyage, and who produced early editions of the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, was clearly not an out-and-out philistine. Other leading literary figures who had reasons to be grateful to Colburn were the obscure young novelist Benjamin Disraeli, who despite some harsh words about Colburn stayed with him even after he could have chosen a grander publisher. Frances and Anthony Trollope, R. S. Surtees and Captain Marryat were just some of those who would on occasion hold their noses at Colburn’s methods, but they did not protest at their generous share of the rewards of Colburn’s vigorous publicity. Many American authors such James Fenimore Cooper owed their British public to Colburn.
It was his periodical publishing that earned him his second nickname of ‘the Prince of Puffers’, which is perhaps better than a rogue. One of the longer chapters is entitled ‘The Prince of Puffers: A Defence’, the length of which implies there is some substance to the charge. The defence is that he was clearly not the only contemporary publisher to use reviews in periodicals he owned to promote his own books. Present day readers of Private Eye will be well aware of the tendency of reviewers to give preference to books from the reviewers’ own publisher.
The New Monthly Magazine was Colburn’s first periodical, launched in 1814. This created a stable of writers whose later books Colburn published. For three years it had the aged poet Thomas Campbell as a figurehead editor, but clearly Colburn was firmly in charge. The weekly Literary Gazette, which has a good claim to be the forerunner of the Times Literary Supplement, followed in 1817. His later United Service Journal established in 1829 had more of a niche market...