E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra
An oft overlooked niche in the publishing industry is the so-called “partwork,” a periodical resembling a magazine which forms a portion of a longer work. Originally intended to sell books in easy installments to those who could not afford the upfront cost of complete volumes, they have survived for over four centuries in various formats.
One result of the European discovery of printing in the Fifteenth Century was increased literacy, yet paradoxically, printed books remained nearly as expensive as manuscripts. The initial setup and the physical editing, typesetting, proofreading, presswork, folding, collating and binding were fully as labor intensive as laboriously inscribing pages with pen and ink – only the ability to run multiple perfect copies made the new process worthwhile. At first, printed volumes attempted to imitate manuscripts, down to hand-rubricated initial letters, wide margins and sumptuous bindings. Fine books stayed in the domains of the church, the government and a small percentage of wealthy nobility for the next two centuries after Gutenberg revealed his invention of movable types.
Nevertheless, a small number of people in the embryonic middle class desired and obtained less elaborate single-sheet texts and pictures printed from woodblocks -- the so called “Pauper’s Bibles,” which date from the 1420s. The religious upheavals in the early Sixteenth Century inadvertently created the world’s first mass media. In Germany, Martin Luther’s Reformation of 1517 produced a flood of propaganda in the form of broadsides and small printed pamphlets, some of it given away free in leaflet campaigns and some retailed for a couple of pfennigs. A few canny printers realized that a long work could be divided into 8 or 16-page sections and sold for a few coppers per section over a period of time. A thrifty buyer, who didn’t mind waiting several months or years, could thus own a complete book on the installment plan and have it bound later. Sections of the Bible thus became available to laypersons for the first time in history – and translated into their own vernacular tongue! Printed almanacs, equally useful for the liturgical and agricultural calendars, could also be obtained cheaply as broadsides or pamphlets.
The sixteenth century also saw the rise of the first printed chronicles of current events – first in the form of yearbooks and then in weekly gazettes. At a few pennies per issue even these were too costly for the average person. Oddly enough, the new craze for coffee drinking solved this problem. Coffee houses that sprouted up through Europe and England in the Seventeenth Century used every gimmick to attract a regular clientele, including the creation of small libraries. As a valid business expense, the proprietors subscribed to an assortment of “coffee house” papers and journals to be perused and discussed by their customers over a cuppa and a pipe. With the rise of a middle class with economic clout, coffee shops and news/essay papers became an influential part of English society and government. Firms like Lloyds of London had their origins in coffee houses, and the thinkers who helped form opinions through the papers may be said to have shaped government policies throughout the Eighteenth Century. The content of these journals ranged from official government press releases, to witty essays on manners and morals, to downright scurrilous libels by “Grub Street” political hacks.
A number of these small papers, usually printed on both sides of a single quarto sheet, were written by authors of more than average ability, notably Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, Dr. Samuel Johnson and the prolific Daniel Defoe. Their weekly essays, collected in book form, have remained classics: The Spectator, The Tatler, The Rambler and The Review can still be found in modern editions. With the success of these journals, the idea of issuing books as partworks became attractive. Human beings love to collect and assemble sets of almost anything. Once a purchaser owned two or three parts, he was likely to become “hooked” until he completed the set, which ensured a steady cash flow to the publisher and the promise of regular custom to the binder. Publishers canvassed for advance subscriptions before investing in a venture, a practice which has continued unabated.
One of the earliest English partworks was Henry Care’s Weekly Pacquet of Advice from Rome; or, The History of Popery, an unusual anti-Catholic history and diatribe, fueled by anger over Titus Oates’ “Popish Plot” of 1678. Care (1646-1688) accused some prominent members of the Church of England and the government of being secret “papists,” and was tried at Guildhall in 1680 by one of his targets, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs. Found guilty of libel, he was prohibited from publishing his journal. In an odd twist of fate, Scroggs soon afterwards faced impeachment in the Commons and had to quit the bench, saved from disgrace through the intervention of the King, who pensioned him off in 1681. Care immediately resumed publication and continued his weekly until he became ill in 1683. His publisher hired William Salmon to continue the journal, which ran to five volumes. The work was reprinted years later in 1735-6 as a two-volume The History of Popery.
The dramatist Edward Moore (1712-1757,) writing as “Adam Fitz Adam,” issued a collaborative partwork in 209 numbers entitled The World from 1753 to 1756, published and sold by by Robert Dodsley of London. Each segment cost two pence. His fellow scribes included Horace Walpole and Lords Lyttleton and Chesterfield. The World remains a fruitful source of epigrams and witty observations.
In the 1730s, the “magazine,” as we understand the term, came into being. Like a storehouse, the printed magazine embraced a wide variety of topics. Edward Cave’s The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1731 and The American Magazine of 1741 were two of the earliest. Unlike today’s throwaway magazines, the Eighteenth Century versions were meant to be preserved and bound in yearly volumes. The December issue usually contained a volume title page and index.
Partworks flowered in the Nineteenth Century with the advent of steam rotary presses, cheap paper and widespread literacy. These differed from magazines in their content, which covered a single topic “to be continued in our next.” Art books in monthly parts, embellished with steel engravings and lithographs, became a mainstay beginning in the 1840s. Inexpensive popular literature was kept afloat by the penny-part format, both in adult melodramas and later in juvenile “penny dreadfuls.” Both sorts appeared as serials in weekly “journals” and partworks for later binding. Usually eight pages long, with a woodcut on the first page, they often began and ended in the middle of a sentence. Having come from humble beginnings, Charles Dickens recognized the utility of the partwork format for reaching a much wider audience than the genteel patrons of lending libraries. He also found that his readers provided useful “feedback” during a novel’s progress, which he turned to good account by abandoning unpopular subplots and enlarging upon popular scenes. The bathetic death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop was actually lengthened to provide material for an additional installment! He generally constructed his novels so that each part began and ended with a complete sentence.
The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, publishers of the outstanding Penny Magazine from 1832, also issued a Penny Encyclopedia as a partwork. Classics like Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management and Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor appeared in parts before being gathered into volumes.
The great world wars of the Twentieth Century created a demand for weekly illustrated histories of the ongoing conflicts. Many newspapers issued weekly rotogravure sections to address this market, but they were large and unwieldy. Nearly all the combatants issued book-sized war-themed partworks from 1914-1920 and, to a lesser extent, during the 1939-1945 phase. Severe paper shortages and widespread destruction of urban centers limited new publications until 1946. The twentieth anniversary of V-E and V-J days sparked a new interest in the two global conflicts, however. During the late 1960s, Purnell & Sons printed a long series of magazine-format partworks for Phoebus Publishing, Ltd., covering both world wars. Later editions were put out under the Marshall Cavendish imprint. These partworks are notable for a high standard of editorial talent, superb illustrations and design and the contribution of many eyewitnesses, including senior military officers and statesmen. A parallel series of 158 small volumes of The History of the Violent Century (a.k.a. Purnell’s History of the Second World War / a.k.a. Ballantine’s Illustrated History of World War II) appeared at the same time under the Purnell, MacDonald and Ballantine imprints. Although not strictly a partwork, the authors and editors were almost interchangeable. The editors attempted to tell the story from all sides and succeeded quite well. Supplements carried the story through the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Bleeding Ulster and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Large portions of both series were later turned into illustrated single volumes.
The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries carried partworks to heights of graphic excellence undreamt of by earlier publishers. Whereas earlier versions used advertising gimmicks such as colored wrappers and fold-out plates, gilt tinsel trim pieces to paste on the plates, “two-fer-one” offers and prize coupons, many modern partworks offer pieces of three-dimensional models, and other hardware. (“Collect ‘em all!”) Contemporary partworks run the gamut from instructional Do-It-Yourself sets to purely entertaining topics dealing with video games, Harry Potter, sports cars, dinosaurs, cartoon characters and so on. They seem to complement online materials and video games quite nicely.
A dwindling handful of publishers dominate today’s partwork market. These include De Agostini S. p. A., founded in 1901; Del Prado/Osprey, specializing in military miniatures and books; Eaglemoss Publications, who produce Dairy Diary and educational works; GE Fabbri, noted for its “Dr. Who” DVD Files and James Bond Cars; Hachette Book Group, a division of Hachette Livre, the world’s second largest publisher; Marshall Cavendish; and Midsummer Books, Ltd., who publish many natural history and military titles.
The partworks featuring 3-D models have been criticized for the hidden expense of completing a finished model, which might require purchase of over a hundred units, costing hundreds of pounds. Despite these objections, partworks remain popular worldwide.