January 31st, 2010

Serial Series, Part 1

By Rob Giampietro

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg

Text takes time. It takes time to read, it takes time to write, and it takes time to reproduce. Throughout the history of text production, people have been searching for ways to distribute the costs of producing text—financial, temporal—more evenly across a system. This search led a former goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, to develop and refine his system moveable type by the 1450s, which eliminated the laborious book-copying process used previously by monastic scribes. And with Gutenberg’s system in place, Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius was able to quickly popularize printed books by the late 1400s.

As text becomes easier and cheaper to produce, more copies of it get made. While Gutenberg’s Bible was printed in a small edition of 180, Manutius’s books were printed by the thousands. More copies need more readers and most readers like their text to be portable. While Gutenberg’s heavy Bible was best read at a library table, Manutius’s slim editions could be easily slipped in a saddlebag or vest pocket. You went to Gutenberg’s books, but Manutius’s books went with you. As increasingly numerous and increasingly portable copies of texts found their way into the world, they found new readers to buy them and they spread literacy with them.

In the next two hundred years, text continued to get swifter, more portable, and more widely distributed, giving rise to a new form by the late 1600s and early 1700s: the newspaper. By now firmly established in Europe and North America, the newspaper’s growth was spurred by a flowering of global trade. Access to time-sensitive political news and financial information was increasingly important, and publishers strived to invent new technologies to meet demand. By the early 1800s, as a result of the industrial revolution, the Times of London boasted a press that could print a daily broadsheet at 1,100 pages a minute, with a circulation to match. By 1830, presses could print on both sides, saving paper, and the “penny press” was born, offering a product that cost 1/6 of the competition’s price. Once again, more copies, cheaper copies, smaller copies meant better distribution of costs, and, as a result, ever more readers.

Aldo Manuzio il Vecchio

As the cost of mechanically reproducing text fell, the cost of circulating printed texts fell with it. According to historian N.N. Feltes, the fruits of the industrial revolution—like “paved roads, fast coaches, canals, and, eventually, railways”—made it easier to deliver printed texts to their intended audiences. Around the same time, firms that were known as “booksellers” shifted away from selling each other’s books and instead re-established themselves as something more like the publishers we know today, wholesaling their own books, but not, Feltes points out, “anybody else’s.” This concentration of efforts along a single product line did the trick. After all, it does no good to deliver more printed texts to readers if the demand from those readers isn’t stimulated at the same time. Some of these same fruits of industry that cheapened the cost of circulating text were used to drive up demand: traveling salesmen were dispatched bearing cheap printed prospectuses and catalogs to hawk a publisher’s wares to a more geographically dispersed audience. On those same trains and ferryways were newspapers, streaming from the center of cities and featuring paid advertisements for books and, increasingly, the free publicity of literary reviews.

Books were cheaper than ever to print, and they were cheaper, faster, and easier to distribute. Readers were increasingly aware of new books on the market, and, because of the new industrial age, they were increasingly able to find leisure time to read them, all of which set the stage for a flourishing of the Victorian appreciation and consumption of literature. Costs fell, distribution climbed, demand grew, but one variable was not improving. It still took authors a long time to produce a text, and, even given their best efforts, there was no guarantee to publishers that an author’s work would ignite the passions of an ever-widening public.

Again, it was the newspaper to the rescue—or, rather, the technology developed for the newspaper industry. When a greedy and disapproving British government levied a tax on the newspaper industry starting in 1712, it grew over the next century to 4 pennies. Printers began producing pamphlets instead. Through a loophole in the tax law, pamphlets, which were larger than newspapers, were not taxed and were only marginally more expensive than newspapers to produce. While few people could afford the daily cost of 6 pennies for a 1- or 2-page newspaper, the occasional cost of a 12-penny (or 1-schilling) pamphlet of 48 pages seemed more justified. Printers naturally gravitated toward pamphlets and began filling the additional space required with more advertising, fiction, and other miscellaneous content.

Charles John Huffam Dickens

Some printers realized that this new content was more popular than their news coverage and began recruiting proven authors to publish exclusively in the pamphlet format. Generally, these small booklets were called “numbers” or “serials,” but more specifically they evolved into a range of forms including the part-issue, the three-volume, the bimonthly, and the magazine-serial. Effectively, the serial unbound the singular book, reformulating it into a series of installments. In doing so, it instantly appealed to publishers and booksellers by lowering risk. If an author’s work did not appeal to the public, at least publishers had not put all their eggs in one basket. But the serial also increased demand: not only was the serial more reasonably-priced than newspapers, but it was far less expensive than books. The serial was a book on an installment plan. They were wildly collectable—and more portable, too. Best of all, the serial kept a writer in the public eye for months, even years, at a time, as a story’s suspense built chapter by chapter. Now, the time it took an author to compose a text was not a liability, but an asset.

Charles Dickens was an author who’d proven himself in the newspaper trade. Starting in 1833 with his first story, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” his short essays, or “sketches” of everyday life, had proven popular with the general public. Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, debuted as a part-issue in 1836, around the same time the House of Commons voted to reduce its tax on newspapers to just 1 penny. With this final regulatory barrier minimized, all the elements needed for a vigorous mass media were in place: it was time for a runaway hit.

Dickens delivered. The first part-issue of The Pickwick Papers was a modest edition of 1,000, but, with the introduction in Chapter 10 of Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick’s servant, demand exploded. Working-class Londoners couldn’t get enough of Sam’s Cockney wit and wisdom. By the end of the serial, Dickens’s circulation had expanded 40-fold. The author was a bone fide literary star, and the Victorian appetite for “novels in numbers” was raging.

Serial Series is a six-part meditation on the production of text from the text’s point-of-view. It was written serially and published serially during the three-week run of Dexter Sinister’s The First/Last Newspaper, a project for Performa 09. The first broadsheet, including this piece (titled NEWSPAPER TAX LEVIED: FEW CAN AFFORD DAILY 6 PENCE) can be downloaded here.