The Commerce of Literature
: George Gissing and Late Victorian Publishing, 1880-1903

  • Frederick Nelson Nesta

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The Commerce of Literature: George Gissing and Late Victorian Publishing, 1880-1903 examines the economic and commercial background of late Victorian publishing and the changing commercial environment for authors. George Gissing (1857-1903) is best know today for his 1891 novel New Grub Street, the quintessential novel of authorship and publishing in the nineteenth century. The records, copyright ledgers, and contracts of Gissing’s major publishers demonstrate how the complexity of publishing after 1880, particularly the growth of an international market, required professional assistance from literary agents to secure the rights and rewards that authors were increasingly demanding. Contracts also underwent a transformation, and Gissing’s provide examples of how they were changed by new markets and the rise of the agent. Serialization of novels in popular and literary magazines and the publication of short stories were also important outlets in the late 19th century. Gissing’s letters, dairy, and his records of payments show how important such activity could be for a late-nineteenth century novelist.
In 1894 the dominance of the three-volume novel ended when the circulating libraries refused to accept them. The three-volume format was and still is defended on the grounds that it was almost always profitable for publishers and encouraged them to take risks on new novels. This thesis uses an examination of publishers’ accounts to show that the format only made money if the copyright payments were kept below £150 and the majority of the edition was sold. Many new novelists, such as Gissing, only saw their way into print if they agreed to subsidize their first novel.
An esteemed but never a popular novelist, Gissing’s literary earnings were still within a middle-class income range and demonstrated that the newly developed profession of authorship was increasingly viable.
Date of Award13 Dec 2007
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorChristopher Michael Baggs (Supervisor) & Gwilym Huws (Supervisor)

Cite this