Of writers and their publishers

As I mentioned in my last post, I am giving a class on writers and their publishers from the late 18th century until today. I will round up the chapter on the late 18th century tomorrow and then move to the first half of the 19th century: birth of the author, first copyright in Germany, and a more in-depth analysis of the work relationships between Goethe and Cotta. Further sessions will be devoted to the work of publishers like Samuel Fischer, Ernst Rowohlt, Siegfried Unseld  and their influence on the work of major authors. Further evolutions in copyright in the 19th and 20th century will also be presented. In the last sessions, I intend to go into digital formats and explore the current relationships between authors and their publishers in the age of copyleft and blogs.

The first sessions were devoted to defining the scholarly interest of looking at literary history through the glass of the relationships between authors and publishers. I underlined the ambiguity of balancing money on the one hand and an intellectual production on the other hand. The two sides of the balance are too unequal in terms of affective value not to give way to conflicts. These conflicts can be due to effects of identification (publishers as wanna-be authors/self-publishing authors) as well as of overlapping fields of competences (both the author and the publisher supposing they are the one who knows best what is best for the text). Some particular interest in the role of lectors/copyeditors emerged during the class. What kind of corrections can they bring in, how do authors react to these corrections?

I also spent some time explaining the kind of documents that are available to reconstruct these relationships. When you don’t just use the books, e.g. editions of the works, but instead need to get into ego-documents and manuscripts, some methodological caveats are necessary, especially considering that this is mainly a B.A. class (open to M.A. students but as it turns out, the vast majority are B.A. students). Displaying work manuscripts worked its usual magic. I am immensely grateful to gallica for helping me show in a convincing, plastic way, what manuscripts and galley proofs can contribute on such a topic.

Working on historical sources has its biases, but it still remains – as a general rule – easier to do research on dead people than on people that are alive, especially when you are asking questions about such delicate topics as money and writings. One major issue to me when I conceived this class was: How can I present anything concerning today’s authors and publishers? Whichever form this would take, it was clear to me that it would only be relatively comparable to historical material. But the book market has been changing so radically over the past 15 years that it would really have been a pity not to have these aspects taken into consideration…

I was lucky enough to find authors and publishers willing to engage into a somewhat experimental process that will allow me to use completely original material for the last session. I am preparing a series of 5 questions (2 of them being identical for the author and the publisher, since the idea is to have them talk about the same work) which they said they would be kind enough to answer. I might have to adapt the questions according to each situation, but the core of the interview will deal with the work relationship. These interviews will be published on this blog at the end of June, one will be in French, the others in German (I will see to translate some of it in English too).

If that does not make you want to stay tuned…


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