Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Politics of Authorship: The Effects of Literary Property Law on Author-Publisher Relations

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Politics of Authorship: The Effects of Literary Property Law on Author-Publisher Relations

Article excerpt

In 1829, author Honore Balzac signed a contract with the publishers H. de Latouche and U. Canel for the first edition of his novel Le Dernier Chouan, ou la Bretagne en 1800. This contract consisted of two main sentences. The first sentence required Balzac to "cede, vend et transporte" to Latouche and Canel "le droit d'imprimer et publier" 1,000 copies of the first edition of the novel (four volumes in the compact in-douze format), in exchange for the sum of 1,000 francs, which Balzac acknowledged having already received. The second sentence said merely that a second edition could be made by the author only two years after publication of the first, unless before then the publishers retained fewer than 100 copies (Balzac, Correspondance 1: 369).

Forty-some years later, another author, Jules Verne, signed a much more detailed and binding contract with his publishers, Hetzel and Company. Dated 17 May 1875, this contract outlined the principles of their relations, past, present, and future. After a long preamble summarizing the terms of their past contracts (dating back to 1862), it contained twelve articles regarding both previous publications and future works. In an effort to give Verne a stake in the success of his books, it substituted for the fixed salary that he had been receiving from Hetzel a proportional royalty, based on the number of copies sold. Throughout, the contract emphasized that the works of Verne, whether past or future, were the exclusive property of Hetzel and Company. Article 4, for example, read:

   Il est dit que: a partir de cette annee 1er mai 1875, Messieurs J.
   Hetzel & Cie sont et resteront aux clauses et conditions qui vont
   etre dites, et a l'exclusion de tous autres aux termes de la loi
   qui regit la duree des droits de la propriete litteraire, seuls
   editeurs de toutes les oeuvres de M. Jules Verne, tant en editions
   illustrees qu'en [small and cheap] editions in 18, ou en tout autre
   mode de publication que les changements des temps et le besoin de
   l'exploitation pourront amener dans l'interet de la propogation des
   dits ouvrages, le tout sans restrictions et sans reserves d'aucune
   espece, de meme qu'il en etait pour les oeuvres anterieures.
   Monsieur Jules Verne fournira par an comme auparavant a MM. J.
   Hetzel & Cie deux volumes de la meme valeur et etendue que ceux
   qu'il a deia publies chez les memes editeurs.

In addition to giving the publishers exclusive rights over the works of the author, this contract accorded them the authority to decide on the journal, collection, or review in which a given story would appear before it was published in book form, and it gave them the sole right to profit from sales of the stereotyped plates of the book (Archives Hetzel, Nafr 17007, ff. 6-9).

These two contracts encapsulate a change in author-publisher relations between the beginning and the end of the nineteenth century. This change has been interpreted in two different ways by scholars. Traditionally, literary scholars viewed it as part of the so-called sacre or "consecration" of the author in the modern period, as Paul Benichou termed it. More recently, book historians such as Christophe Charle and Jean-Yves Mollier have instead seen such a shift in contractual terms as evidence of a sedentarization or even "degradation" of the author by the publisher in the second half of the nineteenth century (Charle, "Le Champ de la production litteraire"; Mollier, L'Argent et les lettres 442-43, and "Ecrivain-editeur" 17-31). Whether they view this change in author-publisher relations in a positive or negative light, however, past scholars have not offered a satisfactory explanation for it. Linking this shift to the emergence of a modern "literary market" or "literary field" they have characterized it as a product of the"rationalization" of the function of the publisher. In these accounts, the literary market is depicted as a natural and static backdrop to the emergence of modern authorial identity. …

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