• Sage Webb

Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Texas’s First Colony, and the Pains of Publishing

With this past weekend’s visit to historic San Felipe De Austin, site of Stephen F. Austin’s first colony in Texas, publishing’s long history as a tough business came to mind. The industry is a rough one.

But let’s back up just a little.

In 1797, Jane Austen’s dad offered the Pride and Prejudice manuscript to the London publisher Thomas Cadell of Cadell and Davies. (Rev. George Austen even inquired into publication costs, implying he’d foot the bill.) The firm declined the book. (Rev. Austen’s letter to the firm survived in the firm’s archives, with someone discovering it in 1840 with the mark “declined by return of post.”) Ouch!

In 1803, Jane’s dad or brother sold Northanger Abbey (under another name) to Crosby & Co. in London, who promptly did nothing with it and ultimately sold it back to Jane’s brother. Finally, in 1811, Sense and Sensibility hit shelves as Jane’s debut novel—with Jane shouldering the financial risks herself. (The book bore the inscription “Printed for the Author,” meaning she was on the financial hook.) The book initially made 140 pounds (which wasn’t too bad back then).

So a bit over a decade after Jane Austen launches Sense and Sensibility, on the other side of “the pond,” Stephen F. Austin launches his San Felipe colony in Texas, with printer Godwin B. Cotten settling in the village beside the Brazos in September 1829. Cotten had already failed as a printer in Alabama, Louisiana, and Tamaulipas, Mexico. But he trundled into Texas for another try, producing The Texas Gazette and publishing Texas’s first book, Translation of the Laws, Orders, and Contracts, on Colonization.

The press struggled though, and Cotten moved on to Brazoria in 1832, leaving room for Gail Borden (think condensed milk—same Borden) room to try his hand at the trade. With no printing experience, Borden, with his brother and a Spanish translator, founded the Telegraph and Texas Register in 1835, going on to become the “printed voice” of the Texas Revolution. The press printed key documents for the revolution and stayed in business up until the evacuation of San Felipe (as part of the Runaway Scrape) in the spring of 1836. Ultimately, the Mexican army got a hold of Borden’s printing press and tossed it into Buffalo Bayou, near modern-day Houston.

Fifty years later, Mark Twain’s publishers displeased him and Twain did his own tossing away, setting up his own “subscription” publishing firm (buyers “subscribed” ahead of time to buy a book to be released in the future—that’s a whole ‘nother story). In 1884, Twain founded Charles L. Webster and Company, which did well out of the gate (publishing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant), but things slipped downward from there. (Tying into posts from earlier this fall, the firm published Libbie Custer’s accounts of George Armstrong out west.) The company declared bankruptcy in 1894.

So “self-publishing” has a long history, publishing as a whole is a rough industry, and a local RV adventure can “drive” home these aspects of the business in vivid ways! 🤣

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