Friday, December 2, 2016

Railroad bookselling

In these days of universal travelling, few of our readers can have failed to notice that, at almost all the larger railway stations, book-stalls—which in some instances attain the proportions of shops—are established to enable passengers to relieve in some degree the dulness of their monotonous transit. Nearly all these establishments are branches of the single firm of Messrs. W. H. Smith and Son, who have for some years past supplied an enormous proportion of English railway travellers with their light reading. The courtesy of these gentlemen has enabled us to lay before our readers some account of a very curious matter. If it be true, as the proverb tells us, that no man is a hypocrite, in his pleasures, nothing can throw more light on national character than trustworthy evidence as to the sort of intellectual amusement which a class so mixed as that of railway travellers prefers. The books in demand for railroad reading may be divided into the two great classes of dear and cheap. Taking two shillings or half-a-crown as the limit which divides the two, it may be said, roughly speaking, that nine-tenths in number and three-fourths in value of the books disposed of at the stations are cheap, and the remainder dear. The higher-priced works are on all kinds of subjects, and indeed the fact that some of them should find any sale at all at railway stations is a curious proof of the wealth of some classes of society. Messrs. Smith, of course, give no credit, and allow no discount; nor is it possible, from the nature of the case, that they should have regular customers. Those who buy of them buy upon the mere impulse of the moment, because it happens to strike them, between taking their tickets and their seats, that they should like to have something to read on their journey; yet such is the amount of spare cash which people have in their pockets, that there is a very large sale for publications at nine, ten, and twelve shillings, and even at higher prices. About 300 copies of the first two, and 100 of the last two volumes of Mr. Macaulay's History, sold at the different railways. Indeed, the last two volumes were cried up and down the platform at York like a second edition of the Times. No human industry could ever read through more than one of the volumes during the longest journey; and yet people were so eager to know all about William. III. and Queen Mary, that, rather than wait a few hours for the knowledge, they were willing to encumber themselves on a journey with two heavy octavo volumes, and to pay 36s. for a book which was sold all over London on the day of publication for 27s. Interesting as it is, Mr. Layard's work on Nineveh is a serious undertaking; yet it must have casually occurred to between 200 and 300 people, rich enough to gratify their whim, that they should like to have it, for about that number of copies were sold at different stations. Dr. Sandwith's book on Kars reached a similar sale at the price of 12s. 6d.; and Miss Yonge's novels sell readily—especially on the South Western line—at 10s. 6d. and 12s. The most extraordinary instance of a combination of zeal for knowledge with the possession of wealth is to be found in the cases of three or four gentlemen who bought copies of Stephens's Book of the Farm—the price being 3l. 3s., and the work, consisting of two octavo volumes, each three or four inches thick. We should expect the person who made such a purchase to go into the refreshment-room at Swindon and ask for a barrel of salt pork and a puncheon of rum.

A good many books of a more moderate size and price, but of a very solid character, are sold on the railways. Dr. Smith's History of Rome, a translation of Guizot on the English Revolution, Mr. Prescott's historical works, Mr. Henry Taylor's Notes from Life, and Mr. A. Helps's Companions of my Solitude and Friends in Council, are in steady demand. Mr. Helps is particularly popular at Manchester and Euston-square.  The most singular proof of the voracity with which some people devour facts is to be found in the popularity of an epitome of Sir Archibald Alison's History of Europe, which condenses into one small, but very thick and very, closely-printed volume, most of the facts which are to be found in twenty crown octavo volumes. Between 200 and 300 copies of this book have been sold. We should like to know how an epitome of the author's reflections would sell! It is satisfactory to find that standard poets are in much favour. During the last six months, 100 copies of various editions of Shakspeare have been sold, at prices varying from 5s. to 10s. 6d.—a considerable number of a 5s. edition of Milton—about 100 of a two-volume edition of Pope—of Young and Thomson, not more than six—about 100 of a 5s. edition of Byron's poems— and the same number of a similar edition of Scott's. The sale of Rogers's poems has been about 40 copies; of Coleridge's, about 30; of Shelley's (at 7s.), 15; of Campbell's (at 9s.), six or eight. Moore, Hood, and Longfellow, are decidedly the most popular of railway poets. About 200 copies of Lalla Rookh, the Irish Melodies, and the Songs, have been disposed of, and 20 copies of his complete works at 12s. 6d.; also, 200 copies of Longfellow's poems, 100 copies of Hiawatha, and from 200 to 300 of Hood's poems. Mr. Tennyson is popular, but in a considerably less degree. The sale of religious books is not inconsiderable; but none are popular unless they are of the Low-church school. Barnes's Notes and Hawker's Portion are fair specimens of the kind of books of this class which sell upon railways—they are mostly bought in Wales. The most curious fact connected with this part of the subject is the wonderful popularity of a quasi-theological biography—The Life of Captain Hedley Vicars. No less than 120,000 copies have been sold since its first publication. An edition of 20,000, lately published, went off in a single day; and Messrs. Smith could only obtain, 365 as their share, though a larger number might easily have been disposed of. There is some sale for scientific books. Popular manuals on various sciences, especially on geology, sell well; and a cheap edition of Kirby and Spence's Entomology has been extensively purchased. Lardner's Museum of Science and Art is popular in the North—the engine-drivers and fitters are fond of buying books on mechanics. Cheap editions of Oratorios are also sought after. Messrs. Smith and Son, to their great credit, exercise a vigilant censorship over the stalls under their care, and banish from them all works of an openly immoral character. People, we are informed, often ask for books in the Index Erpurgatorius, and look rather foolish on hearing that they are not kept. Charlatans, however, are successful on the railways, as elsewhere. Mr. Martin Tupper is considerably more popular than Shakspeare—Dr. Cumming goes down amazingly—and the exemplary Mr. S. W. Fullom, entraps a considerable audience by turning physical science into a cross between a raree-show and a meeting-house. It would be a real service to the nation if any one could substitute for the works of these and some other gentlemen an equal number of copies of Soyer's Cookery Book, of which we are glad to hear an ungastronomic generation has purchased no less than 20,000.

The shilling and eighteen-penny novels form the great bulk of the sales on railways. Cheap editions of the Waverley Novels are still very popular, as many as 200 a month of an eighteen-penny edition are disposed of Sir E. Lytton, however, is at the head of the list. Next comes Captain Marryat ; after him—longo intervallo—Mr. James, Captain Grant, Miss Sinclair, Mr. Haliburton, Mrs. Trollope, Mr. Lever, Mrs. Gaskell, and Miss Austen. The numbers sold range from 1200 to 25 monthly. People are willing to pay high for a good novel, and many works by popular writers sell almost if not quite as well at five or six shillings, as at two. Those who care to read them at all care enough about them to pay well for them. On the other hand, it requires an enormous sale to make a profit out of a shilling novel. The printing is so expensive that nothing but a sale of many thousands will prevent a loss. There are only two ways of producing this result. The first is the legitimate plan of being able to put a popular name on the title-page—the other consists in external decorations on the cover of the book. The quantity of absolutely worthless rubbish which is disposed of by the latter artifice is amazing. Our readers may have seen in shop windows copies of a song called “The Language of the Eye,” on the outside of which is depicted a lady screening her mouth, with a fan, and ogling the passers-by with intense pertinacity. This is copied from the cover of a tastefully-ornamented pamphlet bearing the same title, written by one Joseph Turnley, and dedicated to Lord Ellesmere. It would be impossible to convey to our readers an adequate notion of the wretched absurdity of this book. It is so bad—so utterly and entirely bad—that to give reasons for disliking it would be like proving that toothache is unpleasant. Yet the scarlet-and-gold, the cream-coloured paper, and the ogling lady, have between them produced a sale of 4000 copies at Messrs. Smith's stalls alone; and we understand that between 20,000 and 30,000 have been sold altogether. That our readers may understand the force of our criticism, we subjoin an example of the author's style:
‘The eye of some is all romance and feeling, and seems to portray varied pictures... In some you seem to see foreign lands, sweet wild scenery, and fancy walks by Ganges' side or Armenia's wilds. In some you may behold young love, as a pallid rose, in lighted halls of pleasure, where living stars of loveliness wear their silver and golden raiment. In some eyes you see genius pacing on some high tower, clad in the grandeur of contemplation, and wearing the damp and fervid heat of ambition: 'tis on such occasions you may see the spirit sitting on its throne of light eternal, and hear wild echoes from a voice with silver note,
“I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls.”
The beauty and spirituality of some eyes exceeds the status of mere reason, and yields a path for the majestic step of imagination. . Through the eye, joy oft beams and hovers, imparting a luxuriant animation which causes adoration.’
A novel called Verdant Green has reached a sale, principally by the same means, of even greater extent. It consists of three parts, of which there have been sold no less than 50,000 copies.

The sale of periodicals forms, of course, a very important branch of Messrs. Smith's business. A very large proportion of the newspaper circulation of the country passes through their hands, and there are probably some days on which they circulate as many as 100,000 copies of different journals, daily and weekly, Illustrated journals are much in request, and the experiment of publishing local penny papers would seem to have succeeded. The numbers disposed of are very great, but an enormous sale is necessary if any profit is to be made. On particular days, of course, the newspaper sale is immense. When the news of some of the battles in the late war arrived, the morning papers were soon out of print, and some of them sold on the next day for 1s., 1s. 6d., or even 2s. 6d. Palmer's trial created a “war demand,” and 25,000 copies of his life were disposed of; but none of the other causes célèbres which have been so common within the last few years produced any perceptible effect on newspaper sale. Though, of course, there are many exceptions, the evening papers have suffered much of late years. The second editions of the morning journals have superseded them. The cheap novels have had a somewhat similar effect, on the magazines. Periodical novels, of course, sell largely; but it is almost universally true of them that the demand is three or four times greater at the beginning than at the end of the story. A very small proportion of the amusement-hunters are in at the deaths and marriages.

Such are some of the results of the information with which Messrs. Smith have kindly supplied us. The most curious fact which it proves is the enormous demand which exists amongst us, for books of mere amusement. No doubt, the great majority of publications sold on a railway must be at once cheap and light; for such travellers as want graver books would naturally choose them beforehand, and take them with them. But though the character of the sale is not matter of surprise, the extent of it is matter for serious consideration. The sales of Messrs. Smith are only a very small part indeed of the total traffic in books of this class. It is by no means difficult to dispose of 30,000 or 40,000 copies of a popular novel; and when we remember the number of such books that are annually published, it is probably no exaggeration to say that more than a million of them must be disposed of annually. Twenty years ago, a novel of any kind was an expensive luxury—at the present day, it costs only twice as much as a pot of beer. We have seen so many strange events that it is not easy to say what may be the effects of any revolution; but certainly such a deluge of eau sucrée must produce some results. It would seem as if, for the mass of mankind, thought had become almost impossible. We are all of us drowned in business on the one hand, and in amusement on the other. Indeed, if we consider the infinitely elaborate apparatus which we have constructed to satisfy our appetite for amusement, we shall be filled with a kind of awe. We take more trouble about idling than most nations do about working.

We would conclude by suggesting the possibility of adding to the present stock of railway libraries a certain number of second-hand copies of standard works, such as abound in every bookstall in London. Every one who cares for books knows the attractions of those establishments, and we should think that the better educated class of travellers would as often be tempted to lay out their loose shillings on “something to read,” by the sober leather coats of old copies of English or foreign classics, as by the most splendid combinations of gilding and scarlet that ever decorated the novels of writers otherwise unknown to fame.

Saturday Review, January 31, 1857.

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