Alexander Pope’s paid subscription model
And my thoughts about adopting one for this newsletter
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. For a while now, I’ve been debating whether to add a paid subscription option to this newsletter, and I’d be grateful for your feedback—more details below. But, first, a subscription writing model from 1713!
Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
Pope has been called “the first business man among English poets,” a distinction he earned thanks to a publishing scheme that he implemented in 1713, when he was 25 years old. This was one year after Pope’s mock epic The Rape of the Lock became an immediate sensation; however, in this era, bestselling publications did not make their authors wealthy. Authors typically sold their work to a publisher-bookseller for a one-time fee, which allowed this individual to print and sell the work in perpetuity. (Independent publishing houses were a later invention.) This meant that a runaway hit was very lucrative for the bookseller—and The Rape of the Lock sold three thousand copies in four days!—and did not pay the writer anything beyond the initial fee. In a letter to a friend, Pope neatly summed up the situation in a couplet:
What Authors lose, their Booksellers have won,
So Pimps grow rich, while Gallants are undone.
Recognizing the unfairness of this system, Pope went looking for an alternative model, and he saw the potential in subscriptions. In October 1713, he announced his scheme: He would be publishing a new translation of Homer’s Iliad, and subscribers would receive one volume per year over six years, at the price of one guinea per volume. (A guinea was worth one pound and one shilling. For context, a guinea would also buy you a fine beaver hat or a dozen French lessons.)
But how would a not-wealthy writer—Pope—produce the physical books that he planned to sell via subscription? This is where the young poet proved a shrewd businessman. To produce the books, Pope crafted a deal with a bookseller named Barnaby Bernard Lintot. Under its terms, Pope would receive a flat fee of 200 guineas for each volume of his translation, just as in any other bookseller-author deal. However, he would also receive an additional 750 copies for exclusive distribution to his subscribers—and these editions only would be printed “on the finest Paper . . . with Ornaments and initial Letters engraven on Copper.”1 Moreover, Lintot could not publish his editions until at least a month after Pope’s subscriber editions appeared.
This is not too far removed from what you see happening on crowdfunding platforms today. Special bonus material, exclusive editions, the feeling of funding a work as it’s being created—unknowingly, all these “new” schemes are channeling Pope.
Of course, Pope’s scheme would only work if he could attract subscribers for all those special editions—which, with effort, he managed to do. (He had already spent a lot of his young life cultivating friendships with members of the era’s wealthy elite, and this proved crucial in drumming up subscriptions.) Then he had to actually complete the promised translations, which was even more arduous: The labor of translating all sixteen thousand lines of Greek in Homer’s Iliad proved so immense that Pope would have nightmares about it for years afterward.
But in the end it worked: The subscription edition of the Iliad brought Pope an estimated £4,000 total, or about £200,000–£260,000 (or $260,000–$340,000) in today’s currency, though these kinds of conversions are very imprecise. Pope quickly followed it with a subscription edition of Homer’s Odyssey (this time enlisting the help of a co-translator to speed the enterprise along, releasing four volumes in 1720–21) and, after that, a subscription edition of Shakespeare’s works. By the end, Pope was rich. He could, he wrote, “live and thrive / Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive.”
SO—SHOULD I BE EMULATING POPE??
As you may know, my next book project is about the eternal dilemma of making art and making a living. I’m looking at the great variety of ways that writers and artists and musicians have funded their work through the ages, and all the messy, brilliant, torturous inventions and compromises it has required. Meanwhile, I’m dealing with much the same dilemma in my own life! (Without going into too much detail, book projects tend to sprawl but publisher advances do not.) And I’m watching with interest the experiments in micro-patronage happening on Patreon, Buy Me a Coffee, and similar sites.
The newsletter platform I use, called Substack, is part of that ecosystem. Currently, I send out this newsletter every other Monday, for free. But I’ve been considering offering a paid subscription option and how that might work. My initial thought is to offer people the option to pay $5 or $6 a month to receive the newsletter every Monday—i.e., double the content each month for approximately the price of a fancy coffee. (Though the almond-macadamia latte at my local spot is $7!)
That’s where I’d love to hear from all of you. Would you pay $5 or $6 a month to receive this newsletter every week? (Receiving it every other week would continue to be free.) Or is there some other paid tier that you would find more appealing? I’m genuinely conflicted about the whole thing and curious for your thoughts, whatever they might be! You can leave a comment below or contact me directly by replying to this email.