The Christmas Annuals

Carey & Lea had hit it big in the 1820's with James Fenimore Cooper. After luring the author to their shop in 1825, Cooper published The Last of the Mohicans in 1826. Within a year he published five other novels with Carey & Lea, including a reprint of The Last of the Mohicans. Thereafter, he wrote about a novel a year through the late 1820's and 1830's; however, after his initial big success he (and Carey & Lea) saw a steady decline in popularity, profits and, consequently, press runs in the first editions; even reprints of his novels failed to sell well. Henry Carey, writing to Cooper in 1829, wrote of the short lifespan of published works: "The sale of books in this country is only for a few days or weeks, and they pass away, almo st as if they had never been." For Carey & Lea, finding another (fresh) Cooper-like author would have meant a great deal. (11)

The firm had had some good success publishing British authors, but due to the peculiarities of the copyright law, their publishing of British novels (including Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen) could never be as profitable as publishing an American author. Since there was no copyright reciprocity, American publishers could publish any foreign novel with impunity. British novels were quite popular in America; indeed, until the creation of a market for American authors, British authors were considered the only respectable writers. However, since anyone could rush a foreign book into type, the spoils lay with anyone who could put the work into print first. Carey & Lea's letters are filled with descriptions of these dramas, as books were rushed off ship, through customs, and into the hands of teams of printers. Small fortunes were made or lost on a day's delay, as these books tended to sell immediately. For Carey & Lea, some of their best sellers came from reprinting the works of Sir Walter Scott (who died in 1832), and Jane Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice was cautiously printed in 1832 in a run of 750. But Carey & Lea's subsequent search for another big American author never met with as much success as they had with Cooper. (12)

The literary annuals -- the Christmas annuals -- have rightly been written of as the emissaries of fiction, carrying the novel into American homes, and the Souvenir, in particular, has received high praise -- it's been called "the greatest literary annual." (13) Much research has been written of the annuals' pivotal role in the creation of a market for fiction. From the perspective of their publishers, they must have been both blessings and banes. For, although they were big and steady sellers, their costs were quite high, and, since they were year-specific, once the gift-giving season had passed, their salability would have dropped off significantly. A canny publisher must have faced quite a dilemma.

With the average cost of a book in the early 1830's running around $1,200,(14) Carey could print eight, ten or even twelve new novels for the cost of one literary annual. If a new Cooper is discovered, then so much the better. Each literary annual contained the works of a number of authors, including ones soon to be famous, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But how could a publisher discern which author was popular in such a compilation? Publishing discrete books could have been seen as a better gauge for an individual author's popularity.