Monday, December 27, 2010

Notes on "The Popularity of Playbooks Revisited"

Peter Blayney, in "The Publication of Playbooks" puts anachronisms of Pollard's anachronistic conceptions of piracy, good and bad quartos, and good and bad players and stationers to rest. It is a seminal article that represents a sea change in the way modern scholars considered the publication of Shakespeare's plays; while the New Bibliographers of Pollard's school considered the printing of playbooks a safe economic enterprise, Blayney's article effectively argues the opposite (2 - 3). I have Blayney's sequel to this article in my reading queue, but it sounds like I need to get my hands on the original.

By focusing on the relatively small number of playbooks printed in the STC (1.2%-1.6% of all STC entries between 1583 to 1642), Blayney reveals that playbooks were not a popular commodity, and that those playbooks that were printed did not sell very well (3).

Blayney's argument "is flawed at a fundamental level because it does not systematically compare the market performance of playbooks to that of other kinds of books." Popularity is a relative term, and Blayney did not examine the sale of playbooks within a sufficient context to establish this relative term. While Blayney's conclusions about piracy being a myth are true, the relative unpopularity of playbooks that he argues also turns out to be a myth (4).

The fact of an editions reprint is indicative that either the previous edition had sold out its run, or was about to, and that the publisher perceived sufficient demand to warrant a second printing (5).

Reprint rates do not reveal the number of copies bought and sold, nor the monetary investment in the publishing of an edition; Mark Bland in "The London Book-Trade in 1600" (A Companion to Shakespeare, David Scott Kastan, ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. p 450 - 463) (5).

"Judged by reprints, plays sold much better than the average book in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, much better even than sermons... Plays were, in fact, among the most successful books in which an early modern stationer could chose to invest" (6).

Charting market trends between 1576 and 1660 reveal that the market for playbooks can be divided into six distinct periods (these bullet points represent direct quotes from page 7):

  • 1576 - 1597: an initial period of low production (48 first editions, 11 second-plus editions).
  • 1598 - 1613: a boom followed by a sustained high production (129 first editions, 79 second-plus editions)
  • 1614 - 1628: a gradual contraction, with production levels generally still above those of 1576 - 1597 (31 first editions, 65 second-plus editions)
  • 1629 - 1640: a second boom (122 first editions, 84 second-plus editions)
  • 1641 - 1649: a sharp contraction, with only one play published from 1643 - 1645 (17 first editions, 10 second-plus editions) [the article doesn't say so, but this period comprises the years of the first and second civil wars]
  • 1650 - 1660: an expansion to levels slightly above those of 1614 - 1628 (58 first editions, 27 second-plus editions) 
London play houses were thriving long before there was a market for printed playbooks, and thus stage success does not necessarily correlate to or cause print success (10).

During the 1598 to 1613 boom, Stationers perceived enough of a demand that they were willing to invest in second and third editions of plays, perhaps partially, because, as Blayney points out in his seminal article, subsequent editions involved lower production costs than first editions did, and thus would yield higher profits if the market was sound (10). It's worth mentioning that the first and second quartos of Merry Devil were printed in this boom. 

"Numerous prefaces confirm that theatrical popularity was always one element of print popularity, and publishers often advertised a play's performance history on its title page" (11).

Reprints of an edition over time testify to the popularity of a play in print, and the demands of a reading public. While the subsequent performance on the stage remains a possibility, there is no evidence to establish correlation, let alone causation (11).

The market contraction for printed plays between 1614 and 1628 underscores the independence of the print and stage markets, but it is noteworthy that this contraction was primarily in the market for new plays: the rate of re-prints only experienced a small dip (11 - 12). Again, it is noteworthy that Q3 of Merry Devil was printed during this period. 

It is possible that either the demand for printed plays shrank in this period, and publishers reprinted old plays that had done well in anticipation that they might have similar success, but it is equally likely that the supply of new plays fell, and that stationers could not acquire manuscripts to new plays as easily as they could during the preceding boom period (12).

Reprints were the backbone of the market in printed plays, and their success would have been less dependent on the success of theatrical production (13).

The Jonson and Shakespeare Folios seem to have done less to establish the market for printed playbooks than the quarto reprints towards the end of the 1590s (13).

In treating primarily on the issue of piracy, Blayney has focussed primarily on newly printed play texts, and the distinction must be made: Blayney focussed on printed play texts and not play books, and thus includes plays printed in collection (13).

During the 1598 - 1613 expansion of the market, if counting only the market in speculative printing, which discounts state proclamations, visitation articles, university theses, and the like, the ratio of professional playbooks printed to other works is roughly 1 in 24 (14 - 16).

Monopolies on certain types of books, such as almanacs and Bibles, as well as captive audiences for law books and school books, meant that a large quantity of books in the STC were not printed in a speculative manner. Playbooks were risky and non-monopolistic in nature, and thus to determine their popularity it is necessary to evaluate a stationer's choice to print a playbook instead of one of the other types of books available to them (17).

"In the first expansion period, professional plays constituted 5.8 percent of this market, or about one in every seventeen editions; in their second expansion, they made up 5.0 percent of the market, or about one in every twenty editions. In peak years, about one in every eleven editions in this market was a professional play" (18).

"Early modern stationers tended to specialize in the kinds of books they published, playbooks included" (20).

In the overall book trade, "playbooks were clearly in high demand" (20 - 21).

While sermons were consistently printed more often than playbooks in the early modern period, playbooks were reprinted more than twice as often as sermons were (21).

Mucedorus was the best-selling play of the pre-Caroline period; it was reprinted 15 times by 1642 (21).

Whereas a sermon was highly unlikely to be reprinted at all if not within five years of its first edition, playbooks thrived well beyond this five year window. Only 2.4% of sermons were re-printed after five years, but 19.7% of plays were reprinted between 6 and 20 years after their first edition; even within this five year window, playbooks were reprinted at a rate of about 20.2%, which surpasses the rate for all speculative print books in the STC (22).

Outside of the 20 year window, the reprint rate for professional plays jumps to 48.6 percent (22).

"Plays not only repaid their publishers' investments more quickly than other books, but they also remained profitable for longer" (24).

Scholars have traditionally regarded playbooks as low-cost, low-profit, and high-risk investments, but if the largest volumes (such as the Geneva Bible) are discounted from the average length of printed books, playbooks are fairly typical in length. Given their popularity evident from re-print rates, and the long term profits those must have generated, printing playbooks was a middling-cost, middling-profit, low-risk venture, which would have made them attractive for speculators (25).

The relatively small number of printed playbooks might plausibly speak more to the available supply of play scripts than demand for new ones. The number of professional playbooks printed was of necessity determined by the number of plays performed on the professional stages. As the professional playing companies settled into established repertories, they had less of a need to commission new plays, which meant less new plays were available (26). It is also plausible that printers would have been most interested in printing plays that had been popular on the stage, as they would have come with their own customer base. While there may not have been enough facts to establish a correlation between print and stage popularity, it seems rational that, given the choice between printing a popular play and an unpopular one, one that had been "damned" on its opening, for example, a printer would have chosen to bet their money on the one that had already passed the trial of the public stage. That is certainly how they advertised it, anyway.


When viewing playbooks in the context of other speculative books printed in the early modern period, they appear to be a far less risky venture than some recent scholars, Blayney in particular, have suggested. While this does not imply a need to return to what Blayney describes as Pollard's "melodrama" of pirate players and printers, it means that we ought to view the printing of plays as both a good financial investment, and that we ought to examine the lack of new plays printed as an indication of a lack of supply rather than a lack of demand. 


Farmer, Alan B and Zachary Lesser. "The Popularity of Playbooks Revisited." Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 56, No. 1. Spring 2005. p 1 - 32.

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