Sunday, May 6, 2012

Quartos were NOT like paperbacks!

Novelist and anti-Stratfordian Michael Prescott posted a thorough and enlightening review titled "Shreds from the Whole Piece" of two new books about the Shakespeare apocrypha --  The Apocryphal William Shakespeare, by Sabrina Feldman and North of Shakespeare by Dennis McCarthy -- on his blog May 1, 2012. I posted comments about Prescott's comparison of Shakespearean quartos with modern paperback books that I have copied here because I think the common comparison of sixteenth century quarto publications to twentieth century paperbacks is emblematic of the anachronistic mindset that hampers a true understanding of the entire Shakespeare authorship question. The entire exchange along with his outstanding post on the Feldman and McCarthy books is available on Prescott's blog at

Linda Theil posted to May 3, 2012:
. . .  May I take objection to your characterization of the quartos as comparable to supermarket paperbacks? Comparing the quartos to twentieth century paperbacks is a common analogy that suffers from anachronistic thinking. Considering the quartos in the same terms as modern paperbacks provides an inaccurate view of the value of the quartos and by extension an inaccurate view of the market for these quartos. While it is a difficult process to analyize the cost of goods in varied times and places, using value equivalents can be useful. In this example, a modern paperback is sold for about the cost of one-hours work by an unskilled worker or $7 to $10. A Shakespeare quarto was sold for about 8 shillings which was the weekly wage for a skilled worker, such as a joiner -- an equivalent cost today of hundreds of dollars. This is a vast difference in value. Comparing a quarto to modern paperbacks also gives the impression that the quartos were an important part of the contemporary meme, like a best selling novel or an enormously popular TV show in the twentieth century, but the limits of communication in the sixteenth century make any such comparison inaccurate. I don't know how to imagine the quartos as a cultural phenomenon, but I'm pretty sure they have nothing in common with paperback books. In my opinion, the whole issue of the Shakespeare authorship suffers greatly from our human inability to set aside our comprehension of the world as we experience it, in order to understand the world as it was in the past. 
Linda Theil posted to May 4, 2012:
... regarding the cost of a quarto, I agree that reasonable people might come to different conclusions. I don't know where Wikipedia comes up with a pound in Elizabethan money being equivalent to $200 current American, but I understand that some historians consider the issue of equivalence to be the most useful in determining the cost of things in various times and cultures. Some historians base this equivalence on the cost of a loaf of bread which in Elizabethan times I understand to have cost a penny. If you accept that the cost of bread today is between $4-5, you might consider that a penny in Elizabethan times is the equivalent of $4 today. Even if a quarto cost only a shilling (a low-ball figure, from the information I have seen) an Elizabethan would have had to pay the price of twelve loaves of bread to purchase a quarto (or $48 -50 in current currency)-- much more than the cost of a paperback book.
I think the value of goods is a very interesting topic in itself, but I do not insist that my understanding of the value of a quarto is correct. I only wish to offer the opinion that comparing Elizabethan quartos to modern paperbacks is an inaccurate simile. I believe the simile is inaccurate on more than one level as I indicated in my original post, and which you seem to support in your acknowledgement of the small print runs. I believe the simile is inaccurate, also, because the psychology of Elizabethan communication is not accessible to modern humans: i.e. we no longer understand the way a society functions when speed of communication is measured in weeks instead of seconds.
For these and other reasons (literacy rates, for example) this comparison of quartos to paperbacks is common and emblematic of an anachronistic view of the Elizabethan world that hampers real understanding of the era and its art. This easy acceptance of an easy answer to a complex topic -- an answer riddled with unfounded and untested assumptions -- is also emblematic of the entire Shakespeare authorship question. . . . 

1 comment:

Linda Theil said...

Ron Hess shared these observations:
Hess’ Comments:

To me, better equivalence to today’s $8 paperbacks than quartos would have been the “broadsides,” or one-to-four sheet cheapos, vended alongside of quartos. Longer works that were still too short to be quartos would normally be inserted as “filler” in the back of other longer works, such as “A Lover’s Complaint” was inserted into the back of the 1609 Sonnets publication. Or they might be bound together with other shortish works into anthologies.

If a quarto was the equivalent of about $200 today, then one can imagine that the cost of a folio the size of the 1623 F1 would have been nearly astronomical ($5,000?). Clearly F1 wasn’t intended for the largely illiterate groundlings, both for literacy and cost reasons! And neither were quartos, though it might have been hoped that even a journeyman or small scale merchant might have a small collection of his favorite quartos stashed in his parlor, alongside of his Bishop’s Bible perhaps.

It’s interesting that the typical payment to an author of a normal book would have been 2-3 pounds, plus precisely 29 copies of his book, which he would be free to make into “presentation copies” or to sell (so, 29 x $200 = $5,800 equivalent). For plays, the payment was higher, about 7 pounds, and I assume the same number of copies.

To turn a book into a presentation copy, one simply had to get the printer to include a short section at the beginning of a few of one’s copies of the book, inserting a printed dedication to Lord XYZ, in return for which one might get more reward if the lord was pleased with the flattery. But imagine what the author got if the entire book was published as dedicated to Lord XYZ, even with his lordship’s official crest within the dedicatory materials. The author would have had to either be the lord’s servant, or else be expecting reward equivalent to many years’ worth of normal payment.

So, bear that in mind when you consider the number of books dedicated to Oxford, and of those perhaps 1 in 10 with his crest or his own dedication to the author included. It was expensive being Oxford!

One final point: consider how convenient it would have been for the printer, for Oxford, and for Munday if the author of Munday’s projects had just by coincidence been trained as a printer, able to set up his own dedicatory material for presentations, or even bring in a cart containing all the type already set and ready for the presses. And wouldn’t you know it, that was exactly what had happened from 1576 to c.1584, when Munday was apprenticed to printer John Allde. We can ignore the fact that Munday was almost uniquely able to act as a secret printer and conduit of works to pirate publishers, or we can consider how vital these elements might have played in what I call “The Shake-speare Enterprise.”

W. Ron Hess