The High Stakes World of Pirate Publishing

It is now 55 years since Robert Darnton first became aware of the vast archive of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), one of the principal suppliers of books to the French market in the late 18th century. It is fair to say that this happy combination of remarkable source material and Darnton’s analytical skill has transformed book history. Darnton’s first major engagement with this literature, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982) was followed in 1996 by The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, a book that offered a key to understanding the mysteries of the long established and rather settled French book market. In the late 18th century, a network of protected and conservative domestic producers in Paris were increasingly vulnerable to the buccaneering strategies of publishers who were, like the STN, established abroad and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the French authorities. The novelties flooding the market from these safe havens ranged from serious works of theology to scabrous pornographic novels. It was the latter, needless to say, that caught the public imagination, but Darnton also had serious things to say about the Enlightenment and the importance of the book market in paving the way for a renovation in thought and the collapse of the Ancien Régime.

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