Part 1: The Origins of the British Labyrinth

30 April 2024

Laetitia Pancrazi, Executive Vice President, and Director of Athena Advance

This blog post is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 1 explores the history of the publishing industry in Britain and how this legacy from the past still informs current trends. With this better understanding of the publishing industry, authors are better positioned to choose which publishing route is more appropriate and beneficial to them. These publishing routes are explored in depth in Part 2, which will come out in May 2024. This series focuses on the British publishing industry. A future series will explore the USA’s.

In September 2023, I wrote a blog post on the importance of literature in creating change and explored how books have shaped history, society, and lives across the globe. It was a wonderful blog post to write, fuelled by my passion for books and my love of history.

Fast-forward to April 2024 and here I am again writing about books (which should not come as a surprise… I am a self-professed bibliophile!). This time, inspired by our work with our brilliant Athena Advance clients and my journey as a debut author, I am delving deeper into the publishing industry.

But where do we even start?

The publishing industry is like the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world. Or maybe it is more akin to Daedalus’ infamous Labyrinth. An ever-evolving, constantly changing industry, blending traditions with innovations, responding to societal, and technological, changes whilst maintaining a veneer of myth and ancestral prestige. It is no wonder that writers find it difficult to navigate…

So, let’s demystify this sector, starting with an abbreviated history of the publishing industry in Britain. Understanding the history of publishing may seem futile but it is critical to inform authors’ choice of a publishing route. Moreover, numerous current structures and trends stem from the past and can be better addressed by reflecting on their historical roots.

Publishing does not have an official start date.

We, the human species, have always been fascinated with recording our stories, our ideas, our discoveries, and our beliefs (maybe this explains our modern obsession with recording our lives on social media). It is how knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation and what has allowed us to learn from the past and shape the future (although for all that slightly narcissistic desire to write about ourselves, we do not always seem to get the ‘learning from our past’ bit, but that is a topic for another day).  

The publishing industry began with cave paintings, simple stone tablets, and papyrus scrolls. And I often wonder… Who was the first ‘publisher’? Did they walk around with carts full of stone tablets or papyrus? Did they ‘sell’ them? Barter them? For what? Was there even a trade for these stone tablets?  

There was some form of trade, albeit limited, for the beautiful, gold-painted, painstakingly copied by hand, manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Back then, books were not commodities but precious, expensive artefacts, reserved for the nobility and the clergy. Almost no one could read them in Britain. Books were mostly written in Latin. Not that writing them in Old English would have made a difference. Literacy was abysmal, and, after 1066, without going through an entire history lesson, thanks to the lovely Norman invasion, the English nobility did not even speak English, but French.

And then everything changed…

You probably already know what I will be writing about next. It is the zeitgeber of literature, and I am surprised authors don’t have mini statues of Gutenberg to which they pray when they submit book proposals or query agents.

Around 1436, the printing press was invented. We don’t know exactly when because it was the Middle Ages and record-keeping was dodgy at best. It also took Johannes Gutenberg twenty years to perfect his printing press (this should provide immediate relief to all writers out there who are taking longer than expected to finalise their first manuscript!).

Gutenberg’s invention transformed, if not launched, the publishing industry. It changed the entire world, making books available to the masses, democratising knowledge, spreading revolutionary ideas, and innovating education.

This first innovation was not the last that would rock the publishing industry. The internet, eBooks, online commercial retailers, and social media have all fundamentally changed how we consume books, how we interact with authors, and therefore, the entire publishing industry. These changes have created new opportunities for authors, readers, and publishers alike, and are reflected in the myriads of publishing options that writers now have access to. Gone are the days when authors had to rely solely on gatekeeping publishers and physical printed copies of their books. Digital copies and self-publishing options are taking the literary world by storm, bringing with it a new democratisation of knowledge, creativity, and opinions.

Back to our British story…

In England, the post-printing press publishing industry had a turbulent start during Elizabeth I’s reign. Her government passed several decrees seeking to control, censor, and concentrate the content, printing, and distribution of books. This included a decree that confined printing to London, except for one press each in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Look no further as to why the publishing industry remains unequally concentrated in the South-East, to the detriment of talented individuals across the United Kingdom (UK).

Thankfully, this is rapidly and meaningfully changing with literary agents, printing presses, and independent publishing houses emerging across the UK. More change is still needed, including increasing the diversity of the entire industry, starting with editors and literary agents. But steps are being made in the right direction.

The first publishing company?

Under Elizabeth, the Stationers’ Company was also created, becoming effectively the first publishing company in England. It quickly established a monopoly over the entire industry and could inspect printing offices and confiscate ‘inappropriate’ manuscripts (cue to think about the backdrop of this publishing drama which was the religious and governmental conflicts of the Tudor and Stuart reigns).  

The creation of the Stationers’ Company is more than a cool fact for your family trivia night. It shaped the publishing industry by establishing the key functions and role of a publisher, and by extension, it cemented the unequal power relations, in favour of publishers, between publishing houses, printing presses, booksellers, and authors. These structures and dynamics still linger today but have started to shift (thanks in part to the good old internet! Not that the internet is a panacea to the publishing industry’s problems. It is a nuanced player, but this is a topic for another article).

As literacy tepidly grew, independent printing houses and ‘pirates’ (this is how the illustrious Britannica refers to them and it immediately conjures the image of ‘book pirates’, complete with the eye patch, peg leg, and parrot, roaming the streets to find the next bestseller) started to emerge and to challenge the Stationers’ Company’s monopoly.

These indie houses and ‘pirates’ acquired manuscripts, especially works of fiction, which the Stationers’ Company did not want, and created copies which they then sold. Such a ‘pirate’ included Thomas Thorpe who published Shakespeare’s first sonnet (even Shakespeare was once rejected by the more traditional Stationers’ Company!). This division between larger, more traditional, publishing houses and smaller indie ones is still visible today, as we will explore in Part 2 of this series.

What about our rights?

When the Stationers’ Company was eventually dissolved, it had already lost control of the industry and more independent publishing houses and printing offices had popped up, although they were still predominantly located in London/the South-East. The rise of the periodical press in the 17th century further boosted the publishing industry. It was however plagued by constant struggles around licensing, censorship, and the freedom of the press. These struggles still permeate the modern world as seen with the dangerous rise of fake news and echo chambers, the growing use of AI in writing, and authors’ perennial issues with upholding their intellectual property rights.

Another key milestone that Britain can boast about is the Copyright Act of 1709. It was the first of its kind and, like all its subsequent acts and measures, it strived to balance the needs of those who made a living from books with the interests of the increasingly more diverse reading public.

A balance the world is still trying to achieve.

Literary art is less and less a cultural cornerstone of our society. It is becoming a commodity, consumed as entertainment by readers who are increasingly distracted and addicted to short bursts of endorphins. With the rise of social media, authors are closer than ever to their audiences, building engagement and their number of followers in the process. But this proximity has also blurred the line between the public’s demands and an author’s creative independence. It also makes writers increasingly more vulnerable to the general public’s easily swayed opinions and an increasingly arbitrary ‘cancel’ culture.

In this brave new world, authors must navigate the ever-changing, labyrinth-like publishing industry, whilst fighting for their intellectual property rights and pleasing a demanding audience that is ‘digitally’ closer than ever. Becoming an author requires resilience, patience, and a very thick skin. It is why in Part 2 we seek to help authors navigate this industry by exploring the three publishing routes available to them in the UK.