Diderot's Letter on the book trade, Paris (1763)

Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France : Mss. Fr. (Naf) 24232 n°3

Diderot's Letter on the book trade, Paris (1763), Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, www.copyrighthistory.org

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            Chapter 1 Page 2 of 45 total

The first printers who set up their trade in France worked without competitors,
and before long they made an honest fortune. However, it was not with the works of
Homer, of or Virgil, or of any other author of this rank that the early printers
launched their trade. They began with small works of slight value, short in length
and catering to the taste of a barbaric age. It may be presumed that those who
approached these early typographers with works to publish, eager to consecrate the
first fruits of the art to the knowledge which they professed and which they must
have regarded as the only essential kind of knowledge, had some influence on their
choice. I would find it perfectly natural if a Capuchin friar had advised Gutenberg
to begin with The Rule of St Francis; but independently of the nature and the real
merit of a work, the novelty of the invention, the beauty of its execution, and the
difference between the price of a printed book and that of a manuscript – everything
favoured the quick turnover of the former.
      After these experiments in the most important art imaginable for the propagation
and preservation of human knowledge, experiments which this art only offered to the
public as tokens of what they could one day expect of it, and which were not sought
after for long, as they were destined to the public’s growing indifference as people
became more knowledgeable, and which today are only carefully collected due to the
bizarre curiosity of a few unusual individuals who prefer a rare book to a good book,
bibliomaniacs like myself, and scholars with an interest in the history of typography,
like Professor Schepfling; after all these, publishers undertook works of general,
everyday utility.
      But these works were few in number; occupying almost all the presses of Europe at
once, they soon became common, and sales were no longer based on enthusiasm for a new
and justly admired art. At that time, few people read; financiers did not have the
desire for personal libraries and did not relieve poor men of letters of books which
would have been useful to them, in exchange for gold and silver. What did the printer
do? Enriched by his initial ventures and encouraged by a few enlightened men, he turned
his hand to works which were highly regarded, but of more limited appeal. Some of his
works were sampled, and were sold at great speed, in proportion to an infinite number
of diverse circumstances; others were neglected, and there were yet others whose
publication brought nothing but losses to the printer. But the turnover of those which
succeeded and the steady sales of essential books for everyday usage compensated for
his lost with the constant income they provided, and it was this ever-present source of
income which gave him the idea of building up his capital.
      In the book trade, therefore, capital is the possession of a more or less
considerable number of books appropriate to different ranks of society, and varied so
that the sure but slow sale of certain works, more than compensated for by the equally
sure but faster sale of others, favours the growth of the initial assets. When the
capital does not fulfil all these conditions, it is a source of ruin. As soon as the
necessity for such capital became known, publishing ventures multiplied infinitely, and
before long, scholars, who have always been poor, could purchase for a modest price the
principal works in each field.
      All very well so far: nothing suggests the need for regulation, nor for anything
resembling a publishers’ code.
      But in order fully to understand what follows, you must realise, sir, that these
types of scholarly works did not have, nor will they ever have, more than a small number
of buyers, and that without the prosperity of our age, which has unfortunately spread
to all sorts of objects, three or four editions even of the works of Corneille, Racine,
or Voltaire would suffice for the whole of France; how many fewer would be required for
Bayle, Moréri, Pliny, Newton and an infinite number of other works! Before these days in
which we live, in which luxury causes us to spend on frivolous things at the expense of
useful items, most books fell into the latter category, and it was the steady income


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