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Les Miserables and the Future of Publishing

· May 17, 2017

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David Bellos’s new book about Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables demonstrates the degree to which the Internet has changed the role of the publishing industry in the dissemination of literature. The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of “Les Miserables,” has been favorably reviewed in the New York Times and the Washington Post, among other publications.

Bellos, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, describes the enormous efforts of the publisher, Albert Lacroix, to bring the 1,500-page novel to press in 1862. Victor Hugo wrote the novel while in exile on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, so Lacroix had to arrange for the rapid transportation of thousands of pages of proofs and corrections by ship and coach between Brussels and Guernsey to meet the publication deadline. More significantly, Lacroix borrowed large sums from the Oppenheim bank to purchase the 22 tons of lead he needed to print the novel on steam-powered presses.

The Internet has substantially diminished these costs. A 21st century author can transmit her drafts instantaneously to her editor via email. Digital technology has cut the cost of printing by eliminating the need for typesetting, and printing costs can be avoided altogether through electronic publishing. Indeed, the Internet allows the author to bypass the publisher completely and reach a global audience through platforms such as Amazon or even her own website. These platforms increasingly offer print-on-demand options for consumers still interested in physical books.

Although digital technology has not diminished the creative energy necessary to write a novel (Hugo wrote Les Miserables over 16 years, with several interruptions), it has eased some aspects of the creative process. An author can conduct much of the research necessary for historical fiction from her laptop computer using Wikipedia, the Digital Public Library of America, and other online resources. Further, the ability to compose on the computer avoids the need to convert the handwritten manuscript into a usable form. Hugo’s mistress Juliette spent months transcribing Hugo’s manuscript, with its many scribbled corrections and notes, into a clean copy for Lacroix.

Just as the history of Les Miserables shows how much publishing has changed over the past two decades, it also demonstrates that the challenge of infringement, often presented as a new problem created by digital networks, also existed 150 years ago. A pirated Belgian edition of the novel appeared several weeks before the scheduled publication date in April 1862. Similarly, an infringing version of the English translation appeared in Richmond, Virginia, where the Union’s copyright laws did not apply during the Civil War. All references to slavery were omitted from this infringing Confederate version, which became so popular that General Robert E. Lee’s soldiers referred to themselves as “Lee’s miserables.”

Notwithstanding this infringement, Hugo profited handsomely from Les Miserables. Lacroix paid him $2.5 million in today’s dollars for the French publication rights for just eight years. Nonetheless, Hugo’s frustration with the difficulty in securing and enforcing rights in foreign jurisdictions led to his presiding over the 1878 International Literary Congress in Paris, which gave impetus to adoption of the Berne Convention in 1886. According to Peter Baldwin in Copyright Wars, however, Hugo was among the few authors advocating for a short copyright term.

The publishing industry has always managed to overcome the risk of increased infringement brought about by new technologies, including the photocopier and the Internet. It likely will have far greater difficulty contending with the impending obsolescence of its business model. Unless traditional publishers find new ways to provide value for authors, authors will increasingly conclude that these publishers are unnecessary intermediaries.

Intellectual Property

The Internet enables the free exchange of ideas and content that, in turn, promote creativity, commerce, and innovation. However, a balanced approach to copyright, trademarks, and patents is critical to this creative and entrepreneurial spirit the Internet has fostered. Consequently, it is our belief that the intellectual property system should encourage innovation, while not impeding new business models and open-source developments.