...There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them....'And what are you reading. Miss ——?' 'Oh! it is only a novel!' replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.— 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;' or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.In Northanger Abbey Jane Austen pays homage to the women writers who preceded her, and who created a literary marketplace in which women could publish, be read, and receive money for their efforts. Named in the passage quoted above are books by Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth; and the sensationalistic novels of Ann Radcliffe are avidly read by Northanger Abbey's highly impressionable heroine, Catherine Morland.
—Northanger Abbey, Ch. V
These writers, and others such as Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, and Elizabeth Inchbald, not only influenced Austen's novels but helped to create a largely female readership that made the publication of her novels possible. Over the course of the eighteenth century, as historian Alvin Kernan has argued, "an older system of polite or courtly letters—primarily oral, aristocratic, amateur, authoritarian, court-centered—was swept away...and gradually replaced by a new print-based, market-centered, democratic literary system." 
In this new market for literature, the number of books written by and chiefly aimed at women experienced rapid growth in the last decades of the eighteenth century. According to Julia Philips Stanton, the number of women writers increased by "around 50 percent every decade starting in the 1760s."  However, as Jan Fergus notes, "the older aristocratic attitudes that saw print and payment as vulgar were surprisingly persistent among elite women and some men."  Because public notice and monetary exchange were involved, writing for the market was seen as disreputable for respectable women (and this attitude persisted well into the nineteenth century). Burney's Evelina (1778), Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800), and Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790) were all first published anonymously.
"People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them"
And despite strong familial support for her writing, so were Austen's novels. None appeared under her name during her lifetime, even though the authorship of her second novel, Pride and Prejudice, became an open secret soon after its publication. When Henry Austen wrote a brief "Biographical Notice of the Author" for the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, finally acknowledging his sister's authorship, he was careful to portray Jane as shunning both public acclaim and money:
Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives...It was with extreme difficulty that her friends, whose partiality she suspected whilst she honoured their judgement, could prevail on her to publish her first work...She could scarcely believe what she termed her great good fortune when "Sense and Sensibility" produced a clear profit of about £150. Few so gifted were so truly unpretending. She regarded the above sum as a prodigious recompense for that which had cost her nothing...[S]o much did she shrink from notoriety, that no accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen...[and] in public she turned away from any allusion to the character of an authoress. We may well be skeptical, if not of Jane Austen's desire to remain anonymous, then at least of her reluctance to publish. She was only 21 in late 1797 when her father George wrote to the publisher Thomas Cadell to offer the manuscript of First Impressions (the first version of Pride and Prejudice); by this time Jane had also probably written Lady Susan and Elinor and Marianne (the first version of Sense and Sensibility). George Austen's offer was "declined by return of post." 
In 1803 Henry Austen, acting on Jane's behalf, offered the publisher Richard Crosby the manuscript of Susan (the first version of Northanger Abbey) through an agent. Crosby purchased the manuscript for £10, and advertised the novel as forthcoming, but then did nothing further. In 1809 Jane Austen wrote Crosby under the pseudonym of "Mrs. Ashton Dennis," or MAD, "I can only account for such an extraordinary circumstance by supposing the MS by some carelessness to have been lost; & if that was the case, am willing to supply you with another copy if you are disposed to avail yourselves of it, & will engage for no farther delay when it comes into your hands." Crosby responded by reasserting his right not to publish, and offering to return the manuscript "for the same as we paid for it." In 1816 Henry Austen took Crosby up on his offer and bought back the manuscript for £10, thanks to Crosby's ignorance of the true identity of its author. Austen's anger at Crosby's inaction, though, hardly supports the view that she was reluctant to publish. 
And if profit was not a motive early in her literary career, Austen's letters suggest that by 1813 it had become one. Several months after the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813 she wrote to her brother Francis,
…the secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the shadow of a secret now—and that I believe whenever the third [novel, Mansfield Park] appears, I shall not even attempt to tell lies about it.— I shall rather try to make all the money than all the mystery I can of it.— People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them. But making them pay could be difficult, thanks to the modes of publication then available: on commission, by sale of copyright, and by subscription. (For more detail, see Jan Fergus's excellent essay "The professional woman writer" in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition, which I drew on extensively for the information that follows.)
Publishing on commission: Publishing on commission limited the financial risk to the publisher by shifting the responsibility for the costs of printing and advertising a work to the author. In practice, publishers often paid the production costs for a title up front, and repaid themselves from sales, plus a commission on every copy sold (typically 10 percent). If the edition did not sell enough copies to cover the production costs, the author wound up owing the publisher money. In a variation of publishing on commission called profit-sharing, publishers agreed to absorb any potential loss in exchange for a higher share of any potential profits (typically 50 percent after costs were covered).
Austen's first published work, Sense and Sensibility, was issued by Thomas Egerton on commission in 1811. Because of its unexpected success—the first edition sold out in about 18 months—Jane Austen made a handsome return. As she wrote to Francis Austen in July 1813, "You will be glad to hear that every copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140—besides the copyright, if that should ever be of any value.— I have now therefore written myself into £250.— which only makes me long for more." The additional £110 that makes up the £250 she reports to Francis came from the sale of the copyright of Pride and Prejudice. 
Sale of copyright: Outright sale of copyright was the least risky way for authors to see their books into print. Authors could be sure of their return on a book, and would generally receive the full amount within twelve months (rather than having to wait to receive payment if sales of the edition were slow, as they did on the commission system).
If sale of copyright limited authors' financial exposure, though, it also limited their potential gain. Once a publisher had purchased the copyright, the publisher, not the author, received all of the income from sales. (Of course, the publisher also bore all the risk if an edition didn't sell.) And if the first edition sold well, the publisher had the right to issue subsequent editions without paying the author any additional fee.
This is what happened with Pride and Prejudice. Austen sold the copyright to Egerton for £110 (she had wanted £150). In comparison to Sense and Sensibility, the first edition of Pride and Prejudice issued in January 1813 was larger (1,000 copies instead of 750), cost more (18 shillings instead of 15), and sold out in half the time (9 months instead of 18). Egerton issued a second edition in October 1813; on both editions, Fergus estimates that Egerton, after deducting production costs and Austen's copyright fee, may have realized a profit of more than £450. Austen herself never saw another pence from her most popular novel.
Subscription: This was a publishing model that could work very well for established authors, but was more logistically troublesome than either publishing on commission or sale of copyright. When publishing by this method the author solicited subscribers by advertisement or direct appeal, asked them for payment in advance, and sent them copies of the finished work once it was published; each copy was bound with a printed list of the subscribers. Fanny Burney provides an example: after the success of Evelina and Cecilia, Burney cleared £1,000 by selling subscriptions to her third novel, Camilla. (She later sold the copyright for another £1,000.) Among the list of subscribers to Camilla was "Miss J. Austen, Steventon." Although clearly familiar with subscription publishing, Austen did not attempt to publish any of her books by this method.
Fanny found it impossible not to try for books again. There were none in her father's house; but wealth is luxurious and daring—and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber—amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way; to be a renter, a chuser of books! Circulating libraries were a major market for novels, and over the course of Austen's life such libraries became increasingly popular. Circulating libraries charged a modest subscription fee in exchange for the right to borrow a small number of books at a time; they were a way for those with limited incomes—especially women—to have access to books, which were expensive luxuries.
For authors, not only did this limit their financial risk when publishing on commission (since some level of sales was virtually guaranteed), it magnified their readership. Fewer than 2,000 copies of Pride and Prejudice were published during Austen's lifetime, but because each copy in a circulating library had multiple readers, it was read by many thousands more.
Circulating libraries carried books on many subjects, but novels, romances, poetry and plays were among the most heavily represented genres in their catalogues. This dismayed moralists who felt that, if women were to read at all, it should be only uplifting, "improving" literature. Novel-reading was seen as frivolous at best, if not morally suspect. In Pride and Prejudice, when the priggish Mr. Collins visits the Bennets a book from a circulating library creates consternation:
Mr. Bennet was glad...to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it, (for every thing announced it to be from a circulating library,) he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.— Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed.— Other books were produced and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce's Sermons. Austen herself subscribed to circulating libraries; on December 18, 1798, she wrote to her sister Cassandra: "I have received a very civil note from Mrs. Martin requesting my name as a Subscriber to her Library....As an inducement to subscribe Mrs. Martin tells me that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature, &c. &c— She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so;— but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers." 
In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney tells Catherine, "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time." Henry is Austen's most sympathetic hero in large part because he shares Catherine's chief enjoyment—because he too is a "great novel-reader." 
Women as readers
Novel-reading was especially frowned on for women, who were seen as easily swayed and emotionally susceptible. In The Female Quixote (1752) Charlotte Lennox satirized this point of view, while also acknowledging the power of fiction to engage the imagination. Arabella, the heroine of The Female Quixote, reads French romances so addictively that she's come to see herself as one of her fictional heroines.
Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland seems modelled in part on Arabella. When Catherine arrives for an extended stay at the Tilney estate, which incorporates an ancient abbey, she imagines mysteries lurking in every corner. During her first night at the Abbey she discovers an old cabinet in her room, which contains, hidden deep in its recesses, a roll of paper. Catherine has no sooner grasped this secret missive than her candle goes out:
Darkness impenetrable and immovable filled the room. A violent gust of wind, rising with sudden fury, added fresh horror to the moment. Catherine trembled from head to foot. In the pause which succeeded, a sound like receding footsteps and the closing of a distant door struck on her affrighted ear. Human nature could support no more. A cold sweat stood on her forehead, the manuscript fell from her hand, and groping her way to the bed, she jumped hastily in, and sought some suspension of agony by creeping far underneath the clothes….The storm still raged, and various were the noises, more terrific even than the wind, which struck at intervals on her startled ear. The very curtains of her bed seemed at one moment in motion, and at another the lock of her door was agitated, as if by the attempt of somebody to enter. Hollow murmurs seemed to creep along the gallery, and more than once her blood was chilled by the sound of distant moans. Hour after hour passed away, and the wearied Catherine had heard three proclaimed by all the clocks in the house before the tempest subsided or she unknowingly fell fast asleep. Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine's disillusioning, her realization that sensationalistic novels do not reflect the mundane realities of everyday life. There is a mystery at Northanger Abbey, to which Catherine ultimately learns the solution. But the mystery relates to her sudden expulsion from the house by Henry's father, General Tilney, after his welcoming, and, indeed, over-solicitous behavior towards her earlier. That mystery, though, has its roots not in some lurid crime, as originally imagined by Catherine, but in ordinary human failings: greed, self-deception, anger. As Henry tells Catherine when he understands the way her thoughts have been tending,
Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live...Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. The supreme accomplishment of Jane Austen, of course, is that her novels so perceptively describe her own observation of what was passing around her. As Walter Scott wrote in his review of Emma, her novels
proclaim a knowledge of the human heart...presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him....The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis personæ conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances....All of [her characters'] entanglements bring on only a train of mistakes and embarrassing situations...in which the author displays her peculiar powers of humor and knowledge of human life. 
The publication of the last novels
As Jan Fergus details, after Egerton reaped large profits from the success of Pride and Prejudice, Austen decided to return to having her next book, Mansfield Park, published on commission. She was wise to do so. The first edition of 1,250 copies sold out in just six months, yielding her a profit of £310—the most she earned from any of her novels. She evidently wanted to risk a second edition, but Egerton may have advised against it.
This may have been one reason that Austen decided to switch publishers. She sought to sell the copyright of her fourth novel, Emma, together with those of Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility, to the prestigious house of John Murray (the publisher of Byron and Walter Scott). His offer of £450 fell far short of her expectations, however, and she once again published the new book on commission. Emma was issued at the end of 1815 in an edition of 2000 copies, and a second edition of Mansfield Park was issued by Murray about two months later. Although Emma made a substantial profit, the second edition of Mansfield Park did not sell well; after covering Murray's losses on Mansfield Park, Austen realized less than £40 from the sales of Emma.
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were issued together in four volumes in an edition of 1,750 copies by Murray at the end of 1817. The novels sold well and ultimately realized a profit of more than £500. Alas, Jane Austen did not live to see their success. It was Cassandra and Henry who saw these last works through publication. Jane passed away in July 1817, after months of debilitating illness. However, between September 1815 and August 1816 she marshalled her energies to produce what is, in my view, her greatest achievement: Persuasion.
Next in the series: Persuasion and the British Navy at war
Last time: Emma and the fate of unmarried women
Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:
- Favorite adaptations and final thoughts
- Persuasion and Austen's sailor brothers
- Mansfield Park and slavery III: An estate built on 'the ruin and labour of others'
- Mansfield Park and slavery II: Lord Mansfield and the antislavery movement
- Mansfield Park and slavery I: Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle
- Pride and Prejudice and the marriage market
- Sense and Sensibility, inheritance, and money
- The plan
- The Honorable Caroline Upton (detail), by Sir Thomas Lawrence, ca. 1800. From The Clark Museum, http://www.clarkart.edu/Art-Pieces/1448
- Letter from George Austen to Thomas Cadell, 1 November 1797. From St. John's College Library, Special Collections: Jane and George Austen, Letters (MS 279) https://stjohnscollegelibrary.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/jane-and-george-austen-letters-ms-279/
- Detail of the subscriber list of Fanny Burney's Camilla (1796) from the Chawton House Library blog, http://www.chawtonhouse.org/
- The reader (detail), by Marguerite Gerard. From the Fitzwilliam Museum, http://www.fitzwilliamprints.com/image/702970/gerard-marguerite-fragonard-jean-honore-the-reader-by-marguerite-gerard-fragonard
- Alvin Kernan, Printing Technology, Letters & Samuel Johnson, Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 4. Quoted in Jan Fergus, "The professional writer," in Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 2-3.
- Judith Phillips Stanton: "Profile of Women Writing in English from 1660 to 1800," in Frederick M. Keener and Susan E. Lorsch, eds. Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 248. Quoted in Fergus, "The professional writer," p. 2. Emphasis in the original.
- Fergus, "The professional writer," p. 3. https://goo.gl/rLF5c4
- Henry Austen, "Biographical Notice of the Author," reprinted in Jane Austen, Persuasion with A Memoir of Jane Austen, Penguin Books, 1965, p. 32. https://archive.org/stream/persuasionwithme030504mbp#page/n37/mode/1up
- George Austen, letter to Thomas Cadell, Publishers, 1 November 1797. https://stjohnscollegelibrary.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/george-austen-letter.jpg
- Jane Austen, letter to Richard Crosby, 5 April 1809. http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number4/morris.htm
- Jane Austen, letter to Francis Austen, 25 September 1813. https://goo.gl/ZJ62gM
- Jane Austen, letter to Francis Austen, 3/6 July 1813. http://www.pemberley.com/images/Letters7/86.pdf
- Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Volume III, Chapter ix; Chapter 40.
- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, I. xiv.; 14.
- Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, 18 December 1798. From R. W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others, Oxford University Press, 1932, pp. 38-39.
- Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, I. xiv.; 14.
- Northanger Abbey, II. vi.; 21.
- Northanger Abbey, II. ix.; 24.
- [Walter Scott] "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 188-201. http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/review-of-emma-in-the-quarterly-review-1815