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Media Reviews

Media Reviews

French Book Trade database

Event Date: September 2012
Review Date: 30th September 2012
Reviewed By: Jeremy D. Popkin, University of Kentucky
Review Citation: Jeremy D. Popkin, review of French Book Trade database
Date Accessed: 16th April 2014
The archives of the late-eighteenth-century Swiss publishing firm, the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel, are to historians of the French Enlightenment what the fruit fly, Drosophilia melanogaster, is to researchers in genetics: an inexhaustible opportunity to test hypotheses that would otherwise be far more difficult to verify. Through a historical accident, the voluminous business papers of this otherwise unexceptional Enlightenment-era enterprise were preserved and wound up in the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire de Neuchâtel. The STN corresponded with booksellers, authors, governments and other publishers all over Europe, and the documents it left behind have long been recognized as an important resource for the study of the production and circulation of books from this period. Although the American historian Robert Darnton was not the first to use these papers, he recognized their potential more fully than the scholars who had preceded them, and much of the research that won him recognition as the leading expert on the Enlightenment book trade during the past four decades was based on the STN archives.

The British historian Simon Burrows and his collaborators, most notably Mark Curran, have now undertaken even more extensive research in the STN archives than Darnton, and, in a valuable service to scholarship, one of their projects has been to fashion the data they have gathered into a publicly accessible web site that enables scholars all over the world to see what those documents tell us about the circulation of books in the last few decades of the old regime. In its present form, at least, “The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769-1794,” is less comprehensive than its title suggests: based as it is on the STN’s records, it cannot pretend to tell us everything about the period’s book trade, since it documents only the books printed, purchased and sold by this one firm. The STN was just one of many internationally significant publishing houses in its day. Despite the claim Burrows makes in one of the videos posted on the web site, the STN was not a pre-Internet version of, dominating the market and able to provide readers with virtually every book in print. In fact one of the questions raised in acute form by the web site is how representative the STN’s sales were of the book trade as a whole. Nevertheless, the web site does provide an impressive amount of information that will be of use to scholars with a variety of interests, and, perhaps even more significantly, it should provoke research on questions that may not have been previously considered.

What Burrows and Curran have done is to comb through the STN records to record all the books the firm printed, purchased, and sold. Although, as Burrows explains, there are a few gaps in these records, they are complete enough to give a convincing picture of the STN’s activities. The documents from which the database was generated record some 70,000 transactions involving over 400,000 physical books, representing approximately 4000 different titles, which were sent to 2895 different clients, mostly bookdealers in other parts of Europe. The Burrows team did not content itself simply with documenting these transactions: they have also tried to give a complete bibliographic identification of each book mentioned in the STN records. This has involved not only consulting major library catalogues, but also actually reading, or at least skimming, each title, in order to classify it according to genre and content. Books listed as “prohibited” in Darnton’s The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France, 1769-1789 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995) or other sources are identified, making it possible to evaluate the proportion of literature sold by the STN that could be regarded as subversive. In classifying books by genre, Burrows et al. have developed their own categories, but they also show how the books were identified at the time according to the standard categories used by Paris booksellers.

For each title included in the database, the Burrows team provides data showing how many copies the STN acquired, where they got the books (whether from their own presses or from other suppliers), and how many they sold. The sales data is broken down by client and transaction, and the database can be manipulated to show how many copies were sold in any given period or in any given region. Data on distribution can be displayed either in tabular form or on maps, which can be manipulated in various ways: one can, for example, call up a map showing all the copies of a given title sold in France, or one can have that data broken down by province or by city. Conversely, one can enter the name of a town or other geographic unit and obtain a list of all the books sent there, which can then be fine-tuned by time period and in other ways. Thus entering the French city of Dijon into the database shows that the firm never sent more than 100 copies of any book to that city, and that five of the six books that constituted the STN’s biggest sellers there were pamphlets concerning the French minister Necker’s publication of the French royal budget in 1781. Another approach to the database is to look all the books sold by the STN in a particular period. In the year 1771, for example, just ten titles, most of them related to the baron d’Holbach’s Systême de la nature, accounted for 95 per cent of the firm’s sales, whereas in other years, the firm sold a much wider variety of books, including Bibles and other religious titles.

The “French Book Trade” database is not difficult to use. A short video of Simon Burrows standing, appropriately enough, in front of a bookcase and looking a little like a young Woody Allen, provides a brief overview of the project and the web site, and more information is available by clicking on a tab labeled “About the Project.” Drop-down lists of authors, titles, and localities make it easy to start searches, and the parameters of a search—time period, geographic scope, and so forth—can be easily modified. Responses come up quickly. Users with small screens may have some difficulty reading the text; if there is a way to enlarge the print size, I was unable to find it.

A database is, of course, a tool, and the question is what are the uses to which it can be put. There are certainly many ways in which the “French Book Trade” data can help scholars. Burrows points out, for example, that his team’s research has often identified previously unknown editions of significant eighteenth-century books, thereby requiring modification of older bibliographical studies. For those of us who are interested in debates about colonization and slavery, it is interesting to note that the STN sold no copies at all of the initial 1770 edition of the abbé Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes and few of the second edition of 1774. It sold considerably more copies of the expanded and more radical version issued in 1780, although sales did not really begin to mount until 1782. Similarly, if one wants to understand the impact of scandalous pamphlet literature about public figures in the French monarchy, it is important to note that the STN only sold its first copy of Pidansat de Mairobert’s Anecdotes sur Madame du Barry, an exposé of the life of the much-reviled mistress of Louis XV, in 1776, two years after the king had died and she had been packed off to a convent. In other words, the copies of this inflammatory exposé sold by the STN had no impact on du Barry’s fate.

For all its obvious usefulness, however, the “French Book Trade” database presents certain pitfalls, and researchers will need to think carefully about the meaning of the results it brings up. Generate a map of the distribution of Dr. Tissot’s bestselling polemic against masturbation, for example, and the territory corresponding to present-day Sweden and Finland shows up as an alarming dark blotch. One quickly starts to imagine possible explanations for an obsession with this subject in Europe’s north: long winter nights, lack of alternative forms of entertainment... Only when one checks the data more carefully does one realize that the STN sold a total of only 57 copies of the book in the whole of Europe, and that the appearance of heavy sales in Scandinavia in fact represents just one shipment, consisting of eight copies. Consider also the relatively small sales by the STN in the French city of Dijon and the even lower sales to the larger city of Lyon, to the south of Dijon. Are these figures evidence that readers in Dijon and Lyon were not interested in reading, and especially that they were not interested in controversial books? If one knows that Lyon was itself a major center of book production, and that it was also a major market for publishers in the extraterritorial enclave of Avignon, one is more likely to conclude that French booksellers in the region simply did not need to order supplies from Neuchâtel. It would thus be very easy to make misleading assumptions on the basis of the “French Book Trade” database.

To date, the most controversial question raised by the data available in the “French Book Trade” database is the extent to which it confirms or challenges the “Darnton thesis,” the conclusion reached by Robert Darnton on the basis of his own statistical soundings of the STN archives. In broad terms, Darnton has argued for more than forty years that, in the decades preceding the French Revolution, France was inundated with prohibited livres philosophiques attacking the basic institutions of Church and state and, in particular, the major figures of the French court—the king, the queen, royal ministers and royal mistresses. Darnton presented a list of “forbidden bestsellers” in what is probably the most widely read version of his research, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), and its companion work, The Corpus of Clandestine Literature. His figures were derived from booksellers’ orders placed with the STN. While the information provided on the “French Book Trade” web site also comes from the STN, it does not derive from the same set of documents that Darnton relied upon. As Burrows has explained in public presentations of his work, Darnton based his figures on what customers requested, but the data base’s results are derived from documents showing what books the STN actually sold. The differences are significant. One of the works whose impact Darnton emphasized most strongly, for example, was a philosophico-pornographic classic of the eighteenth century, Thèrese philosophe, which showed up in 15th place on his bestseller list, with requests for 365 copies from customers. The STN’s records of actual sales, however, show that it only shipped a total of 137 copies of the book. Looking at the detailed record of the STN’s purchases and sales, one sees that it took them 13 years—from 1775 to 1788—to sell the 100 copies they acquired in 1775, mostly in small shipments of between one and six copies. Even the total of customer requests Darnton records—365 over twenty years, or an average of 18 copies per year—hardly seems impressive for a “best-seller.” In the case of the Amours de Charlot et de Toinette, a pornographic pamphlet accusing Marie-Antoinette of having committed adultery with her husband’s brother, the comte d’Artois, the STN received orders for six books but never supplied any. Darnton found requests for 135 copies of the 1771 pamphlet Le Gazetier cuirassé, a work he has repeatedly presented as the quintessential example of the period’s libelles or slanderous political pamphlets, but the STN only acquired five copies of the work and apparently never sold any of them.

The “French Book Trade” database makes it easy for users to generate their own best-seller lists, most of which come out looking very different from Darnton’s. As Burrows’s own scholarly presentations at several recent conferences have shown, however, the whole issue of “best-seller” lists generated from the STN materials is a very tricky one. The single work of which the STN handled the most copies during its entire existence, a libelle entitled Planta gagnant sa vie en honnête homme, illustrates many of the problems involved. The STN printed this pamphlet itself, producing 33,991 copies, far more than of any other title it handled, and it disposed of nearly half of them, 16,787 copies minus 107 returns. The work had all the features of a salacious libel—illicit sex in high places and political corruption. It was, however, essentially a venomous assault by one party involved in an ugly divorce case in Geneva against another, and all the copies were ordered and paid for by the author. There is no evidence that it was actually read, much less that it had any influence on historical events. In any event, nearly all copies of it went to a single place, namely Geneva. The fact that this particular work was meant essentially for readers in Geneva reminds us a larger fact revealed by the database, which is that a considerable part of the firm’s market was actually outside of France, thus adding additional complications to any attempt to link STN book sales to the origins of the French Revolution.

Setting aside the freak case of the Planta pamphlet, most “best-seller” lists generated from the “French Book Trade” data show well-known Enlightenment works by authors such as Voltaire scoring much better than the obscure pamphlets made famous in Darnton’s works. The lists are problematic in another way, however, because they highlight the STN’s own editions, especially works by the STN’s stable of “house” authors, particularly the French playwright Louis-Sébastien Mercier, whose books were usually officially banned in France even though their subversive content was minimal, and the future Girondin leader Jacques-Pierre Brissot. One can manipulate the database to exclude these authors, and one then gets lists that look more like the standard canon of the Enlightenment. No matter what one does, however, Darnton’s libelles and other genuinely pornographic or subversive works turn out to have been a much less important part of the STN’s overall sales than he himself suggested. Part of the explanation of this has been revealed by the researches of another of Burrows’s students, Louise Seaward, who had shown that foreign governments, particularly the French, were able to put effective pressure on the STN not to distribute genuinely controversial titles by complaining to the authorities in Neuchâtel about its activities.

It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that Darnton did not pay enough attention to the possibility that customers might be asking the STN to provide books that it did not handle, or that, in some cases, simply did not exist. (Burrows has shown, in his book Blackmail, Scandal, and Revolution: London’s French Libellistes, 1758-1792 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), that none of the famous pamphlets slandering Marie-Antoinette, frequently referred to as having undermined respect for the monarchy before 1789, actually got into circulation prior to the storming of the Bastille.) The “French Book Trade” database, on the other hand, reflects only the books actually bought and sold by the STN, and figures derived from it can lead to misleading conclusions. It is probable that there really were no copies of Les Amours de Charlot et de Toinette in circulation prior to 1789, but the Gazetier cuirassé, printed in London, did in fact circulate widely, as present-day library collections indicate. The fourteen copies of Rousseau’s Contrat social sold by the STN (a figure which does not count the several thousand copies of editions of Rousseau’s Oeuvres that the STN also sold) are certainly not an accurate measure of the book’s circulation, let alone its impact.

The data from the STN reflected in the “French Book Trade” database thus pose a serious challenge to the “Darnton thesis” about the impact of scandalous literature on eighteenth-century political and intellectual life, but the bigger questions about the impact of printed texts on the events of the period, and especially on the origins of the French Revolution, remain open, and the dream of a statistically based “social history of ideas” derived from book circulation data that has haunted the field since the publication of Daniel Mornet’s classic Les Origines intellectuelles de la Révolution française (Paris: Armand Colin, 1933) remains unrealized. No one working in the field of French Enlightenment studies, however, can afford to ignore the rich mine of data that Simon Burrows and his collaborators have made accessible, in an eminently usable form, and the new possibilities it opens up for scholars.
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