Seventeenth-century crowd funding

by Nick

A few days ago, via Twitter, I came across Adrian Teal‘s brilliant proposal for The Gin Lane Gazette: a crowd-funded, illustrated eighteenth newspaper. The project is being taken forward through Unbound, a publishing company run by various alumni of QI and The Idler. The business model is based on readers contributing towards the cost of publication, who receive recognition in the final book and – depending on the level of funding – other rewards such as exclusive access to material by the author or other goodies. In Teal’s case, £1,000 gets you lasting immortality as a caricature and character in the book. In return, authors get higher royalties than they might expect from a traditional publisher.

The Gin Lane Gazette reminded me of an early modern example of crowd funding: that of John Taylor. Taylor was a waterman who first entered the book trade in 1612 with a collection of verses. From that point on he kept up a prolific stream of publications, including in 1618 an account of a journey on foot to Scotland published as The Pennyles Pilgrimage. In the previous year Taylor has published a similar account of his journey to Hamburg, but this book had two twists. The first was that Taylor had set himself the challenge of completing his journey without begging and relying on spontaneous offers of hospitality. The second was that Taylor tried to fund it through subscriptions.

From around the 1580s onwards, a class of professional authors had begun to emerge. Some relied on aristocratic patrons, but others were able to take advantage of the growing audience for print and pioneer a different form of patronage. The conventional business relationship was with an undertaker, most often a bookseller, who put up the capital for publication. They either commissioned works from authors or accepted proposals. In turn they paid the author, paid the printer for producing the work, and while bearing much of the risk also took much of any profit to be had. The undertaker also owned the copyright for any reprints. Authors tended not to do well from this deal. Sometimes payment was in kind – free copies of the book, which the author could sell themselves or sell to other wholesalers. Other times it was a fixed fee: a 1624 book, The Schollers Purgatory Discovered, mentions a fee of 40 shillings for ‘some needy IGNORAMUS to scrible’ whatever the stationer desired.

Taylor’s proposal cut the undertaker out of the equation. For The Pennyles Pilgrimage he managed to persuade around 1,650 subscribers to pledge money should he complete his journey successfully. Supporters do not seem necessarily to have just paid Taylor the sale price of the book: the actor-manager Edward Alleyn pledged one pound, well above the odds for a 54-page octavo, although this may have been more generous than most.  He then claimed to have paid around £60 to the printer Edward Alde to produce his book. This seems implausibly high, unless Taylor was planning astonishing print runs. It’s hard to calculate precisely how many books the printer could have produced for this, but it would be at least several thousands, and rather more than than the typical print of up to 1,500 copies (or in many cases, fewer than this) that most books had.

The deal for subscribers seems to have been a copy of the book, although it’s not clear whether they each received one or whether more generous subscribers might receive more. Taylor may have hoped to sell surplus copies to a wider audience through stationers. It’s also not entirely clear what Taylor actually spent the pledged money on. He set out on his journey with a packhorse and provisions, which slightly puts the lie to his rhetoric of completing the journey without any money. It’s possible this, and the loss of revenue from temporarily giving up ferrying passengers, may have been funded by prompt contributors. However, Taylor had significant problems chasing down many of his contributors. A year after his journey in 1619, he published A kicksey winsey: or a lerry come-twang. Its sub-title made clear the difficulties he had been having recovering subscriptions: ‘wherein Iohn Taylor hath satyrically suited 800. of his bad debters, that will not pay him for his returne of his iourney from Scotland’. in the book Taylor segmented his subscribers into seven categories:

  • 1 Those that have paid.
  • 2 Those that would pay if they could.
  • 3 Those that walke invisible, and are not to be found.
  • 4 Those that say they will pay, who knowes when.
  • 5 Those that are dead.
  • 6 Those that are fled.
  • 7 Those Rorers that can pay, and wil not.

The vehemence Taylor directed towards his debtors suggests, on one reading, a determined attempt to recover his money. That may mean he made a loss on the publication. But it’s also possible he profited, and was concerned more to out defaulters for having broken their promise. What is also interesting is that, despite his system of micropatronage, Taylor also dedicated the work to a what might be termed a potential ‘macropatron’: the Duke of Buckingham.

We can see Taylor experimenting in The Pennyles Pilgrimage with alternatives to the established communication circuit of author, undertaker, printer and bookseller. The potential rewards were higher, but so too were the risks, and as the dedication to Buckingham suggests, it seems Taylor was reluctant to leave traditional business models behind. His collected works, for example, were printed as a collaboration between four printers at the commission of the bookseller James Boler. Still, he seems to have persisted on and off with the subscription model for the rest of his career.

It is hard to tell whether some of these were properly crowd funded – the imprints for some suggest an undertaker was involved, although this could represent a partnership of some sort. One book which does seem to have been properly crowd funded is Taylor’s account of a journey to the Isle of Wight in 1648, Tailors Travels. The imprint specified that it had been printed at the author’s charge, and that it was ‘no where to be sold. By this time Taylor had worked out a contract of sorts for his subscribers, with a set fee:

When John Taylor hath beene from London to the Isle of Wight, and returned againe, and that at his returne, he doe give or cause to be given to me, a Booke or Pamphlet of true newes and relations of Passages at the Island, and to and fro in his Iourney; I doe promise to give to him or his assignes, the summe of what I please in Lawfull money of England, provided that the sayd summe be not under 6 pence.

6d. is a fair bit more than one would have expected to pay for a 14-quarto at this time. Taylor may have been relying on his celebrity to encourage regular readers to cough up a bit more than usual. If so, the profits must have been fairly substantial. In another crowd funded work – John Taylors vvandering, to see the vvonders of the vvest, published in 1649 – he claimed to have signed up nearly 3,000 subscribers. Again, though, it is not clear how many of these made good their pledge.

The parallels between Taylor’s attempts at micropatronage and the model used by Unbound can be stretched too far. Taylor was attempting to become both author and publisher, whereas Unbound substitutes one form of publisher – the traditional publishing house – with another offering a different type of reward to authors. I think it’s possible, though, to see both Taylor and Unbound offering a new kind of experience to readers. Taylor offered otherwise anonymous readers a chance to achieve recognition as a literary patron, and made them a privileged audience for his journeys. Unbound does something similar with its exclusive access to author blogs and other material, and by crediting all its contributors in finished works. And more widely, I think it’s interesting that different but comparable forms of micropatronage seem to have emerged at times when traditional publishing business models were starting to break down in the face of technological changes, changes in market forces, and above all changes in the way readers consumed texts.

Given Teal is a caricaturist, it would be remiss of me not to use an illustration by one of his seventeenth-century forebears for this post. The picture is a woodcut of Taylor in his boat, drinking from the arse of a she-devil. The woodcut, by an unknown artist, was a prominent part of the title page of Taylors physicke has purged the divel (London, 1641) by Taylor’s rival, Henry Walker.