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THE CHARTERED BOOKSELLERS.
Mr. Craik and Mr. Knight appear both to be grievously offended by the remarks which we thought fit to make, in the last Number of this Journal, concerning the “ Penny Magazine."* The former of these gentlemen has addressed a long and very complimentary letter to Mr. Colburn on the subject; and the latter, after communicating to the same quarter his defence in manuscript, has“ shamed the rogues” by printing it as an advertisement, which he has threatened to insert in all our contemporary journals. It is due to Mr. Craik to state, that if we have given him any pain, we regret the circumstance much, as we really had no such object in view. He denies being the only, or even the chief caterer for the “ Penny Magazine;" and as he deems it essential to his reputation to make the world acquainted with this declaration, we afford it cheerfully all the publicity in our power, assuring him, at the same time, that we by no means intended to depreciate his literary acquirements or industry. As to Mr. Knight, we are at issue with him upon every point which his advertisement has put forth in justification either of himself, or of the corporation under whose patronage he conducts the “British Almanac,” the “ Companion to the British Almanac,” the " Penny Magazine,” the “Companion to the Newspaper,” the “Penny Cyclopædia," the “ Gallery of Portraits," the Library of Entertaining Knowledge,” and intends, if we be rightly informed, to establish a Library of Music,” together with sundry other periodical works. We are not at all surprised at the sensibility which Mr. Knight has exhibited on this occasion, as few persons are more deeply interested than he is, in the issue of the question which we have raised, and which, with his permission, we shall now discuss somewhat more in detail.
But before we enter upon the subject, we beg it to be distinctly understood, that for several of the principal members of the incorporated “ Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge” we entertain unaffected esteem. We have had the good fortune to co-operate with them, generally, in all the great political and legal reforms by which they have secured to themselves the gratitude, as well as the admiration, of the empire. It is with no feeling of pleasure, that we animadvert on the principles of action adopted by an institution which bears upon its front the names of the Lord Chancellor, the Bacon of our day-of Lord John Russell, whose career has already shed new lustre on a noble house already identified with liberty-of Sir Henry Parnell, Sir Thomas Denman, and others, whose attachment to the interests of science, literature, the fine arts, as well as to the cause of justice and freedom, it would be almost dishonourable to doubt. The country, however, cannot long be deceived as to the fact, that the arduous public occupations, which demand the constant attention of the individuals we have named, must of necessity prevent them from exercising anything like a vigilant superintendence over the affairs of the society in question. We believe we may state, without fear of contradiction, that whatever business has been performed
* See the article entitled “ Notes on Periodicals,' in our last No., p. 426. Jan. - VOL. XL, NO. CLVII.
by the committee of that association, for the last three years, has really been executed by five or six individuals, most of whom are wholly unknown to the world. The Lord Chancellor's fiat as to all matters concerning the Society is snatched, as it were, from his lips, without the possibility of due reflection upon his part, and thus in his name, as well as in those of his more distinguished colleagues, real commercial enterprises are carried on, very profitable to those who are immediately concerned in them, but ruinous to most of the respectable private booksellers in the kingdom, and to the real advancement of literature.
Let us examine a little into the history of this anomalous institution. In the year 1826, an association, consisting of some hundred individuals, was formed in London for the purpose, as the prospectus states, of “ imparting useful information to all classes of the community.' The attainment of this object was proposed to be effected by “ the periodical publication of treatises, under the direction, and with the sanction, of a superintending committee." It was arranged that each treatise should contain an exposition of the fundamental principles of some branch of science,” and that the greater divisions of knowledge should be subdivided in such a manner as to render each capable, if possible, of being explained in a single treatise. An enumeration of the subjects originally intended to be discussed is then given, from which it appears that they were expressly confined to matters of a purely scientific description.
No reasonable objection could be urged against the scheme of a publishing society, strictly limiting its operations to the view which the prospectus thus disclosed. When an association of noblemen and gentlemen, who disclaim the acquisition of personal gain, comes forward for any desirable public object, and enters into a branch of general trade already carried on by private individuals, we apprehend that, in justice to those individuals, it must be shown that the particular department of a trade so taken up is attended with a degree of risk, which the merchant would not be willing to encounter. It must be a line of business attended with pecuniary loss, otherwise it should be left to ordinary commercial enterprise. It is the prospect of loss that justifies the formation of the society, and calls for the subscriptions which are necessary in order to qualify any person to be one of its members. Unless this principle be admitted, there is no trade safe from the interference of amateur associations. The community is composed of mechanics and merchants of every degree. The lawyer is a merchant who sells his skill and knowledge. Suppose the general opinion to be that his charges are too high, and that an association of amateurs were created for diffusing penny law throughout the laud, would he not have some right, in the present state of all other professions and trades, to complain of their proceedings ? In the same manner, the bills of the butcher are said to be artificially kept up. Reduce the price of meat to twopence per pound by means of a society, and you do an apparently great public good. But who are you that effect this good for the public? Perhaps a physician, perhaps a haberdasher, perhaps an agriculturist, perhaps a chemist, perhaps an importer of foreign produce. Then "look at home," as Liston says, for, according to the “ rule of three,” your own turn ought to come next. Nothing can, in fact, be sold at what may be deemed a natural price in a highly civilized society. In such a state of human intercourse every interest is of necessity founded on an artificial basis, on the proverbial
principle, " Live and let live.” Taxes, rents, charges of a thousand different kinds, must be met by every individual in a greater or less degree, and he is fairly entitled to fix a value, in proportion to all other things, upon his land or the produce of his industry, which may enable him to enjoy, as well as his neighbour, the fruits of his honest avocation.
It does not appear to us that individual enterprise, which is the very life-blood of every commercial community, was at all repressed, or in any way interfered with, by the original plan of the Diffusion Society. It is very well known that our old books of science sold to a very small extent, and that, previous to the establishment of that body, those works were far from being of a popular description. The treatises of the Society, numerous as they have been, have indeed left much to be done in this point of view, for it cannot be denied that they are frequently too abstruse, and altogether very imperfectly executed. Nevertheless, the design was commendable in every respect, and we only regret that it has not been exclusively adhered to.
As the association gathered strength, its leaders made some additions to their first plan, which are also, in our opinion, free from just censure. They organized, in several of the county towns, local committees, which afforded efficient aid in the circulation of the treatises. Advantage was very properly taken of the existence of such committees, in order to institute statistical inquiries, to investigate the rules and proceedings of "friendly societies,” with a view to their amelioration, and also to collect data with reference to the progress of education among the lower classes of the people. In order to assist in the accomplishment of the latter object, a Quarterly Journal” nounced, which deserves all praise. Now, here were four great objects upon which the labours of the Society might have been bestowed, not only without injuring any branch of trade already in existence, but with great and permanent advantage to every part of the community ;-the diffusion of science, the compilation of statistics, the improvement of the friendly societies, and of education in general, might have nobly occupied the attention of the first men in the country, and would doubtless in the end have abundantly rewarded their labours. But from these high grounds, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge have latterly descended, deserting their original object altogether, and entering into competition with a variety of traders, whose interests it was the duty of the Lord Chancellor, as well as of his colleagues, to protect and not to destroy.
The treatises of the Society met with an unprecedented sale. Nevertheless, some persons, to whom we shall at present only allude, observing that the influence of the celebrated names connected with that body, as well as its extensive ramifications in the country, might be turned to their own pecuniary advantage, suggested that the Committee should apply their efforts to subjects “ of more extensive interest than pure science." Mr. Constable, the well-known publisher of the "Waverley" novels, had already commenced a miscellany of entertaining works, upon a scale of economy before that time unexampled. The Committee of Diffusion soon after entered upon a similar undertaking, which they entitled “ The Library of Entertaining Knowledge.” On the wrappers of each number of this Library the names of every member of the Committees, in town and country, were artfully printed in the most ostenta
tious manner. The vanity of many men was thus flattered, who found themselves associated with public characters of the first eminence. They were, therefore, engaged by their pride to extend the circulation of the books in their different circles. But this was not all: the appearance of such a list of names on the wrappers was calculated, and intended, to make the public believe that the persons so held forth had, in fact, lent the aid of their talents to each and every publication so graced by their names or titles! This was a splendid imposition against which
poor Constable had no means of contending. It cost him a little fortune to advertise his publication through the newspapers. The Society had no occasion to advertise at all. Their name was in itself an advertisement. Their committees in town and country pushed the circulation of the 6 Library” in all directions, and gave their services gratuitously. Constable had to pay everywhere for agency of an infinitely inferior description. The Society rented a room or two in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and engaged a secretary at a small salary, (since increased five-fold,) and a messenger and collector upon the most frugal terms. Constable had to meet the rent and taxes of extensive premises in Edinburgh, and to defray the salaries of a number of clerks and other servants. His correspondence alone was of necessity attended with great expense; while every letter addressed to the Society was sent under cover to a member of the Committee in either House of Parliament. Was it possible for a private merchant to sustain the competition of the Society with such tremendous odds as these against him ? We need hardly say that the MISCELLANY was soon SUPPLANTED by the “ Library of Entertaining Knowledge !!”
Every body is acquainted with Mr. Pinnock's school-books. They are all excellent of their kind. At least, none of them that we have ever met with appear to be liable to any objection on the score of morality or usefulness. The Society next formed a plan for publishing a series of similar books for children; and, though they have not yet carried it into execution, they will doubtless convert much of Mr. Pinnock’s property into WASTE PAPER, unless they be driven from their improper interference with PRIVATE TRADE by the power of public opinion.
The circulation of the almanacs published by the Stationers' Company offered, however, a temptation which, in some quarter or other, was not to be resisted. It was represented to the Committee that those diaries of various classes were susceptible of great improvement, and, above all, that they sold to THE EXTENT OF NEARLY HALF A MILLION. The outlay in stamps, which the commencement of such a publication required, was very considerable. The Society had not means competent to the undertaking. But those means WERE FOUND by Mr. Knight, who, by good fortune, had a strenuous friend in an active member of the Committee: the Committee forthwith divided itself into sections ;the sun was given to one; the moon to another; the tides to a third ; the eclipses to a fourth; one bureau had the care of the chronology; another of the holidays; another of the public offices and both houses of Parliament; and, in little more than a fortnight, towards the very conclusion of the year, the “ British Almanac” was prepared and sent to the printer.
Now, observe, the “ Almanac" was declared by the Society, in the first instance, to be an experiment,” entered into with the view of affording an example of improvement in that class of publications. It produced the desired effect. The almanacs of the Stationers' Company were altogether remodelled; and although one of them (continued to gratify old people in nearly its former style) may be open to some objection, the “ Englishman's Almanac” is undoubtedly the most useful and comprehensive production of the kind in existence. “It may safely be asserted,” say the Society in their Report for 1830," that no experiment has ever more precisely answered the calculations of those who made it; and that LITERARY COMPETITION has in no instance produced effects more speedily, decidedly, and extensively beneficial to the community.” If this be the fact, does it not follow that the Society, having gained the desired object of compelling the Company to reform the almanacs, ought, from that moment, to have ceased all further interference with the legitimate trade of a commercial body? They admit that they had entered into a literary competition with it. What! is it indeed the business of Lord Brougham, Lord John Russell, the Duke of Bedford, and Sir Francis Burdett to keep up a competition in the trade of literature with the booksellers, and Stationers' Company? Such seems to be the case. The “ British Almanac” and the “Coinpanion” to it were found to be both highly profitable to Mr. CHARLES Knight; and, by a mysterious sequitur, the Society resolved “ to continue these two works."
GEOGRAPHICAL MAPs, and MAPS OF THE HEAVENS, next engaged the attention of the Committee, and they have produced a series of both, which they have been enabled to sell so cheap, that the established chart publishers throughout the kingdom might as well quit their business at
It is understood that some, the most eminent amongst them, have already sustained serious losses, in consequence of the “ competition” of the Society. There is no subject that did not, after these open deviations from their original plan, come within the labours of the Committee, certainly the most indefatigable coterie that ever worked without pay-if it be true that no pay they received, and that they really did attend to the business with which they were thus abundantly supplied. They issued a series of books for the use of the farmer, which treated, “ de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis,” the the ox, the ass, the mule, the fox, the polecat, the badger, the weasel, rats and mice, goats and bees, rabbits and fish, stabling, shoeing, yoking, diseases, remedies, milk, butter, cheese, hop-planting, road-making, bridge-building, hens, geese, ducks, breeding, eggs, and feathers! So much for the farmer! For all other classes of mankind the Committee prepared also works on brewing, political economy, medicine, commerce, the rights of industry, the rights of property, division of employments, exchanges and equivalents, population and poor-laws, taxation, banking, Herculaneum and Pompeii, the Elgin and Phigalian marbles, and all manner of wild beasts, in addition to tales, apologues, histories of all countries, lives of all eminent persons, and a countless variety of other productions - The Committee did all this !
“ Credat Judæus Apella,