Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Notes on "The Publication of Playbooks"

Pollard's melodramas of good and bad quartos is itself based on the assumption that playbooks were an extremely popular commodity that publishers were eager to obtain and sell by any means necessary. This basic assumption is itself untrue (384).

After the first period of rampant play publication (Dec 1593 - May 1595), it is likely that the players themselves provided the plays for print, not because they needed the meager amount selling their plays would net them due to plague closures, but as a way of advertising their repertory after playhouses re-opened (385 - 386).

The ten most popular plays, based on reprint rates within the twenty five years following their initial printing, all reached at least five editions within 19 years (387 - 388). It took Merry Devil twenty three years to reach a fifth printing, and forty-seven for its sixth. It was a popular play book, but not even close to being the most popular.

Less than one in five printed plays sold enough copies to return a publisher's investment within five years, and less than one in twenty would have done so within the first year. There simply wasn't enough of an economic incentive for a publisher to unscrupulously obtain play texts (389).

Since the term "print shop" blurs the distinction between printers (who almost always manufactured the book and nothing more) and the book shops where the books were actually sold, it is a term best avoided. Blayney advocates "print house" instead (389 - 390).

When investigating the text of the play, the concern is with the printer, but when investigating the details of why a particular text was printed and when, that is the domain of the publisher. There was no early modern word for a publisher primarily because most publishers were either primarily booksellers or printers, and because a publisher is also a book seller; there seems to likewise be little distinction between retail and wholesale sellers; they were all book sellers (391).

The only evidence extant from the period is of minor writers being paid forty shillings for their work by a publisher, and that evidence is so scant that we cannot say that it qualifies as the usual payment for a work by such an offer (395 - 396).

The right to copy in the Stationer's Company was a vastly different thing from the eighteenth century concept of copyright. Right to copy applied within the Stationer's Company, and was designed to help publishers recoup their investments from a publishing venture. Thus the right to copy did not merely extend to reprinting the same material, but to similar material as well: Millington and Busby needed to get Thomas Creede's permission before the former pair could publish Shakespeare's Henry V in 1600 because it closely resembled the latter man's Famous Victories of Henry V (printed in 1598) (399).

A play publisher is likely to employ a printer who has experience in the genre, and is therefore in possession of enough unusual type pieces (i.e. majuscule italic Es for entrances and exits) and the specific problems of composition (i.e. mixed verse and prose) that plays offer  (405).

Given the rather dismal profit margin associated with publishing plays (Blayney estimates 48.3 percent at wholesale), the most likely reason a publisher would gamble on a playbook was the prospect of a second (or later) edition, which would offer profit margins of 91.8 percent at wholesale (412).

Blackletter type faces were typically used in works written for the barely literate: primarily ballads, but jest books, child rearing  manuals, and some new pamphlets. Because Roman was the typeface use in Lily's Grammar, works printed in that face were typically those written for the more literate (414).

No plays were printed in blackletter after 1605, indicating the market for plays was primarily middle class, and that playbooks belonged to a different market than jest books and ballads (415).


Playbooks were not the guaranteed best-sellers that Pollard feels they should have been, and any theory of a printed playbook, general to the industry or specific to a play, needs to acknowledge that fact. More was involved in publishing a play than merely it's printing, and while early modern Londoners did not make such a fine distinction, making the distinction in modern discourse on the subject can help alleviate unnecessary confusion.


Blayney, Peter W. M. "The Publication of Playbooks." A New History of Early English Drama. John D. Cox and David S. Kastan Ed. New York: Columbia UP. 1997. p 383 - 422. Print.

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