Origins of the ANCL and US piracy of it

The well-known Ante-Nicene Fathers series began life as a series of translations of the Fathers undertaken by presbyterian Edinburgh publishers T. & T. Clark, and published on subscription as the Ante-Nicene Christian Library.  “The T. & T. Clark Story” by John A. H. Dempster (1992) gives some fascinating details.  A print run of 4 volumes in 1895-6 was  160 volumes.  Unit cost was around 2s. 3d. to produce, and the volumes sold at around 5s each.  Four volumes were issued a year, and the regularity of this was admired by the Bookseller (1 June 1869, p.470).

But on average the publisher only sold 11 copies of each volume in any one year (it may have been more initially, of course), so the series was very much a long term venture with a lot of money paid up front for limited return.  The same was true of their series of the works of St. Augustine (this was originally of 16 volumes but the last one, a Life of St. Augustine, by Robert Rainy, never appeared owing to other pressures on that busy man).  Clarks were therefore publishing at least in part for Christian motives, rather than financial ones.

Even in those days US sales mattered, because it allowed the print run to be extended (with a new title page featuring the US ‘publisher’!) and so reduced the cost.  But the US copyright law didn’t really protect foreigners, and piracy of British works was endemic.  Essayist Augustine Birrell salutes his many non-royalty-paying US readers in one of his collections of essays.  This situation affected the ANCL also.

It seems that US firms would announce their intention to pirate, and then try to force the UK publisher to accept some kind of financial deal, which gave the pirates sole rights for the US.  These would rarely be advantageous, but the victim was pretty much powerless.

In 1884 the Christian Literature Publishing Company (CLPC) began to produce a pirate version of the ANCL: the Ante-Nicene Fathers.  This was edited by the episcopalian bishop of New York, A. C. Coxe.  T. & T. Clark remonstrated, and pointed out the damage that this was already doing to their sales, but to no effect: ‘finding we had no escape from anyone who chooses to pirate, all we could do was to make the best bargain we could.’  A private letter to Philip Schaff makes plain that Clarks found it hard to understand ‘how Christian men — with Bishop Coxe at their head — could do such a thing.  It is sheer robbery.’ 

After various negotiations and changes of terms, CLPC agreed to pay T. & T. Clark $125 per volume as a flat fee.  This seems to have been paid and, curiously, it seems possible that T. & T. Clark actually did financially better from this than from their sales of the ANCL via Scribners, their US agent.

CLPC went on to appropriate material from other T. & T. Clark volumes, and indeed Oxford Movement volumes, to produce the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series (reviewed here in the 1887 NY Times).  This too was piracy, and again Clarks had to agree.  And thus a classic was born!


7 thoughts on “Origins of the ANCL and US piracy of it

  1. It *is* interesting, isn’t it?

    All this is from photocopies of some pages of Dempster’s book. The book is mainly concerned with company profitability or otherwise, not with people, unfortunately. But it does contain these snippets based on what the researcher was able to find out in the company archives, where the correspondence and the accounts are preserved.

    I suppose that we tend to think of these great Victorian series as enormous successes, given their importance to us. But it seems that they struggled to survive and proceed, just as such a series would today. It’s also interesting to see that the NPNF series is short a volume because of the proposed translator, Rainy, being involved in other, now unimportant, business. It’s a reminder to us all not to let the urgent push out the important.

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