Problematic Publishers


The Royal Oak, East Wittering, Manhood Peninsula, early in the last century. The card is full of interest, but there is no indication of its publisher, who was presumably a local person.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a publisher as "one whose business is the issuing of books, periodicals, music, etc., as the agent of the author or owner; one who produces copies of such works, and distributes them to booksellers and other dealers, or to the public". Although much concerned with book producers, this definition is obviously intended to extend to postcard publishers. However, there are real problems with its practical application in a postcard context. Deciding whether someone was or was not a postcard publisher can often be very difficult.

Traditionally, postcard publishing differed from book publishing in that relatively little venture capital was needed. Cards could be printed and reprinted in small batches, avoiding the need for large stocks. A postcard publisher specialising in real photographics could manufacture them more or less on demand. All this was a far cry from traditional book publishing where the public response was more difficult to predict, but economies of scale could be very great so long as enough copies were printed. Book publishers who made misjudgments could be left with warehouses full of unwanted and costly stock. Although a few of the larger postcard publishers in Britain overreached themselves and became burdened with stock, the majority generally had little difficulty adjusting to changing demand.

This website identifies 400 individuals and firms in Sussex that with varying degrees of certainty can be described as postcard publishers. The majority were definitely publishers and many others have a strong claim to be considered publishers, but the status of around ten percent is more questionable. There are essentially three types of publisher that create difficulty.

The first type is the ultra-small or transient producer whose cards are very hard to find at the present time. Consider the case of a village grocer who printed only 1000 cards to stock in his shop - a hundred each of ten varieties. The chance of an individual card surviving to the present day is difficult to estimate, but is certainly less than one in a hundred. In other words, at most only ten cards are likely to be found today in collections or in dealers' stock. Because of their rarity, the cards will be very little known. In some cases only a single card will be found after several years of searching, or possibly no card at all.

The card illustrated, which is dated 1922, shows the "Old Berkeley" Brighton to Lewes stage coach outside the Old Ship Hotel on Brighton's seafront. The picture is marked in the corner "Cooper, Hove, 2067, Copyright", but who was Cooper? Was he just the photographer or was he also the card's publisher? No other Brighton or Hove cards marked Cooper have been reported, though of course they may exist hidden away in private collections. No Hove photographer called Cooper has been traced in Directories, and he (or she) may have lived or stayed in the town for only a few months. With only one card available for study, it is impossible to make any useful generalisations about the nature of the publisher's output.


The "Old Berkeley" Coach in 1922 in Brighton

This website's directory of publishers does not include Cooper and many other producers known only from a single card because there are so many uncertainties. Many of the individuals concerned may have simply been testing the market and on experiencing poor sales with a few trial cards may have decided not to attempt sustained or full-scale production. Or they may have been amateur photographers who preferred to print their pictures in postcard form rather than on conventional photographic paper. Their cards may never have been sold in shops, though they may have been given as presents to friends and relatives.

The drawback with excluding problematic publishers of the Cooper type is that a significant number of genuine though ultra-small producers are denied the recognition they deserve. If you have information that someone has been wrongly excluded (or just overlooked), please get in touch so that they can be added to the directory of publishers.

A second type of problematic publisher is the anonymous producer. Around 30-40% of Sussex cards that dealers stock fail to provide any indication of their publisher, but this does not mean that 30-40% of Sussex publishers are unknown. Many publishers included their name (and often also their address) on at least a few of their cards, even though most of their output was anonymous. Only one card in a thousand may carry the publisher's name, but discovering it will be sufficient to establish that person's identity. Unfortunately, perhaps as many as 5-10% of publishers issued all their cards anonymously. A few of these "recalcitrants" have been successfully identified because their photographs were reproduced with due acknowledgement in books or magazines, but sadly others are "known only to God".

The third kind of problematic publisher is the "stealth publisher" who names the retailers of the cards as the actual publishers while downplaying or concealing his or her own identity. Cards of the village of Grumbly, for example, might be labelled:

           "Published by Alfred Smith, Post Office, Grumbly" or
           "Published by William Jones, Corner Shop, Grumbly" or
           "Published by Mrs Robinson, Tea Gardens, Grumbly."

Unwary collectors assume that Smith, Jones and Robinson were genuine publishers when all too often they were merely proxies for publishers who preferred to keep out of the limelight.

Proxy publishing was widespread in Edwardian times and seems to have originated as a ploy to win the loyalty of retailers. Publishers had to compete fiercely to gain the support of retailers at each town and village that was depicted on their cards. It was no use a publisher trying to sell cards of Grumbly, for example, at Much Hoping if the latter village was a long way off from Grumbly. Unless one or more shopkeepers at Grumbly agreed to try to sell the cards, the publisher could expect to be left with unsaleable stock.

After the First World War, proxy publishing became less common. Retailers seem to have become more willing to accept a simple (and honest) word change:

            "Published for Alfred Smith, Post Office, Grumbly."

The problem of stealth and proxy publishers is not easy to resolve. What credence should be given to "Published by ..." labels on cards sold at a single retail outlet? Was the named individual a genuine publisher or a mere proxy? This website takes the precautionary view that all single-site retailers selling direct to the public who claimed to be publishers were actually proxies, unless good reason can be found to believe otherwise. This may seem very negative and dangerously akin to assuming that someone is guilty until proved innocent, but there is no practical alternative. Giving all claimant publishers the benefit of the doubt and accepting them as genuine would be absurd. One would end up with thousands of names and a near complete list of every village store, stationers shop, post office, tea garden etc. that sold postcards. As a guide to genuine publishers the list would be grossly inflated and seriously misleading.

However, it is important to try not to throw too many babies out with the bathwater. Reasons for believing that a particular retailer may have been a genuine publisher and not a mere proxy include:

1) Evidence that the retailer was a photographer. Even a retailer with quite modest photographic expertise would have been more likely to take up postcard publishing than someone with little or no interest in the subject. The problem is that the necessary evidence may be hard to come by because the retailer may have been a part-time or amateur photographer. He or she may never have engaged in studio portraiture or advertised for business. Nevertheless, the production of real photographic cards of local events such as parades and processions is a good indication that someone was a genuine publisher. The cards would have had to go on sale quite quickly after each event, which in many cases would mean that they had to be made locally. Buying in supplies from a distant manufacturer would not usually have been a practical proposition.

2) Evidence that the retailer marketed postcards supplied by at least three different manufacturers. This may seem a tenuous argument, but many retailers sold cards supplied by one chosen manufacturer year after year. Retailers who dealt with several manufacturers appear on average to have taken a greater interest in what they were selling, and they are more likely therefore to have been genuine publishers. They may not have printed the cards, but they may well have commissioned them (and taken some or all the photographs), thus acting at least in part as publishers.

3) Evidence that the retailer sold an unusual range of cards. Out-of-town postcard publishers that supplied cards to local retailers tended to provide summer-time views of very conventional subjects such as the main street, the village green, the parish church, and so forth. Retailers who sold cards showing winter scenes, little known back lanes and unexpected views have a better claim to be considered genuine publishers than retailers who offered standard fare.

4) Evidence that the retailer supplied other retailers with cards, in effect acting as a wholesale stationer. For example, Thomas Roles, an engraver and stationer in Preston Street, Brighton, produced cards of Stanmer village with his name printed on the back. Very few of these cards, if any, would have been sold at the Preston Street shop. Roles must have supplied the cards to a shop in the village, thus taking on the role of wholesaler and therefore publisher.

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