How the Writer/Publisher Relationship Has Changed Throughout History


Getting published is something almost every writer strives to do. Publishers have the ability to make that happen. The relationship between these two parties has changed throughout history. Publishers went from being extremely controlling of the author’s right and being angry about making little to no money, to thinking about what’s best from an economical publication standpoint for both parties.

In “Nineteenth Century America: Publishing in a Developing Country,” Sheila McVey says a main concern for publishers was copyright. They were worried only the writer would get paid because of copyright laws. However, “In the 1870s, Harper’s and Carey and Lea, the two firms with the longest lists of British authors, had worked out trade agreements that were so reliable, they amounted almost to a cut-rate copyright, profitable to publishers rather than to authors” (McVey 77). This means that the publishers would get paid for helping out the writer. This is in some sense their incentive to be a publisher. Books were incredibly sparse in the 1800s, so it was crucial to get more published. Giving publishers a reason to keep helping writers – the copyright laws – was able to help expand the economy of the world of literature.

In Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, Matthew Stadler explains that choosing to become a publisher doesn’t exactly state what will happen to the future of the writer’s book. By signing a contract, the writer is giving the publisher “permission to publish [their] edition, to make and sell copies as needed to readers who want the book, and [he/she] intend[s] to keep doing so forever” (Stadler 20). The publisher’s main concern is helping the writer get his or her work out there.


However, if another publisher comes along and offers a different deal, the writer has the option to leave. There is a lack of competition despite the competitive nature of the publishing industry. Publishers aren’t going to extend an arm for someone unless they really, really, really believe in that person. Usually they will think about what’s best for them economically. If a publisher believes an author can sell 100 copies, then they are going to sign that author with that contract. If another publisher reaches out and says he/she believes the author can sell 1,000 copies, then typically the first publisher will just let the author go to the second publisher.

At the end of the day, money is still very much so the deciding factor when it comes to publication. Even today publishers still want proof that their writer will do well before signing them. For instance, most publishers are willing to sign someone that has already been published. Seeing that someone has been recognized prior to publication, like winning a contest, is also an incentive for a publisher to sign someone.



One thought on “How the Writer/Publisher Relationship Has Changed Throughout History

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  1. Your post does a nice job considering the financial relationship between publisher and author, including the ways this can be detrimental to one party and lucrative to the other, or (ideally) beneficial to both. You might further consider how much responsibility an author has for promoting his/her books, versus how much responsibility the publisher has. In other words: whose job is it to ensure the book finds an audience?


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