In his new book, a Literary Tour de France (Oxford University Press) renowned historian and Harvard University Librarian Emeritus Robert Darnton offers a rich, fascinating look at the book trade in pre-revolutionary France. PW recently caught up with Darnton to talk about this extraordinary work, and the state of the book business then and now.

For those interested in the history of the book, A Literary Tour de France is just incredible stuff. Tell us a little about the genesis of this book. How is it that we can know so much about the book business in pre-revolutionary France?

Robert Darnton: In 1965, I walked into a historian's dream: an archive of 50,000 letters that had lain unread in an attic in Neuchâtel, Switzerland for two centuries. The manuscripts came from the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), one of the largest publishers and wholesale book dealers of the 18th century. I stumbled across them by following up a footnote when I was a graduate student at Oxford—I was seeking information about one of the most prominent leaders of the French Revolution, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, the head of the Girondist party, who published his books with the STN before 1789. The footnote suggested that some of his letters might be in the Neuchâtel library. So I wrote to the library's director, and in reply he said they had 119 letters by Brissot. After joining the Society of Fellows at Harvard in 1965, I headed straight for Neuchâtel. And sure enough, there were Brissot's letters—surrounded by 50,000 others, all of them by people concerned with printing and the book trade: authors, printers, paper makers, typographical workers, smugglers, peddlers, and booksellers of all shapes and sizes. Having embarked on a biography of Brissot, I changed my mind and started studying the world of books. The history of the book is now an important academic discipline, but at that time it hardly existed and didn’t even have a name.

We think the book business can be rough today, but describe for us the world of books for a young traveling sales rep in the 1700s?

What I discovered in these letters was a world that was endlessly fascinating, full of obscure human beings, the kind who rarely appear in history, scrambling to make a living by providing readers with the printed word. It was similar to the world Balzac described in his great novel, Lost Illusions, yet populated by real, flesh-and-blood characters whose lives could now be reconstructed in great detail.

In A Literary Tour de France, I follow a traveling sales rep who got on a horse in July 1778 and spent five months visiting every bookshop on his route, an enormous circuit through all of eastern, southern, and central France. During this trip, he kept a diary and corresponded with the home office in Neuchâtel. And the documentation is so rich that you get to know the book trade at street level, as experienced by the booksellers and as assessed by a professional representative of a publisher. And the booksellers he met also have dossiers in the STN archives stretching from 1769 to 1789. So, it was possible to combine a horizontal view of the system in 1778 with vertical views of the businesses of dozens of booksellers. By systematically studying their orders, I could discover what books circulated, and even produce a retrospective bestseller list.

So you can tell us what was popular among readers in pre-revolutiory France?

Yes, I was able to compile statistics on 1,145 titles—enough, I believe, to have a clear idea of literary demand as it actually existed in a society about to explode in the first great revolution of modern times. I could confirm that the Enlightenment did indeed penetrate deeply into the Ancien Régime, along with literature of a kind that has since been forgotten—exotic travel books, sentimental love novels, popular histories, moralistic tales for children, reference works, popular science, and a great many libelous tracts about the private lives of public figures. Works such as The Private Life of Louis XV and Anecdotes about Mme la comtesse Du Barry made France look like a decadent despotism. Books like these did not lead to the Revolution in a direct, causal manner, but they contributed greatly to the radicalization of public opinion before 1789.

I found the role of piracy and smugglers, which you detail in the book, to be especially fascinating. Publishers fear a different kind of piracy today, in the digial age, but can you talk a little about piracy in the 1700s?

Copyright did not exist before 1789, except in England (the statute of Anne, 1710). But pirates could be punished for violating "privileges," which functioned as primitive copyrights within individual countries, although publishers in Holland and Switzerland were not subject to French law. These book pirates were canny businessmen. And they pirated French books and marketed them in France with the complicity of French booksellers, especially those in the provinces who resented the domination—and the high prices—of the Parisian publishers. And there was an enormous underground system that supplied booksellers and worked quite effectively, despite occasional disasters.

How prevalent were pirated books in the market back then?

I studied the smuggling industry and the underground trade in detail, because, in my estimation it conveyed more than half the books that were in circulation. Also, the underground was full of colorful characters and I had great fun reconstructing the trajectory of their careers. For booksellers in the 18th century there were no returns, and the trade was monopolized by guilds. The Paris guild dominated the publishing industry, and even had the power to reinforce its monopoly by inspecting shops and shipments, and the policing of literature involved extensive censorship, along with specialized police inspectors. Put it all together—no copyrights, no returns, guild monopoly, censorship, policing—and you can see why pirates flourished. In fact, piracy was so widely developed that you might think of it almost as a counterpart to the way information today circulates outside the commercial trade by means of the Internet.

Though we have gone through several phases in our views of the Internet, I still see it as a force that makes possible the democratization of access to knowledge.

You ask publishers today about their main challenge in the Internet age and they will often say "discoverability." How did French publishers and authors get the word out in the 1700s?

One thing about 18th Century publishing and the book trade that surprised me was the intensity of the flow of information, mainly through the mail. The STN received a constant stream of letters from booksellers everywhere in France, and the rest of Europe, who accompanied their orders for books with shop talk, gossip, and general observations. Important publishers dispatched sales reps who gathered information from oral exchanges. And marketing involved the circulation of prospectuses, catalogues, and notices in journals. There was no lack of information—but much of it was false. In fact, pirate publishers would often announce they were reprinting a book merely to test demand, or to scare off other pirates. Defying the legitimate publishers in Paris, pirates opened up a large, downscale market that would become known as "le grand public" in 19th Century. Sometimes authors sold the same work to different publishers under different titles. And among pirates, there was relatively little respect for the original text—pirates cut and abridged as they pleased, lowering the price by eliminating what they called "typographical luxury."

You’re an author, a leading historian of literary and publishing history, and you ran the Harvard University library system during a fascinating period of technological change, most notably during the Google Books controversy. What’s your take on the state of publishing, and for that matter, libraries today?

I don't believe in jeremiads about "the death of the book" and "the obsolescence" of libraries. More books are published in print each year than the year before, and the sale of e-books has leveled off. And our libraries are crowded with readers. We have seen that at Harvard, where I directed the library system for eight years, and public librarians have witnessed it everywhere.

But libraries have acquired new functions, especially as gatekeepers and preservers of material from the Internet, and librarians have developed new skills, many of them technological, pedagogical, and vocational. And thanks to new institutions like the Digital Public Library of America, which we developed here at Harvard in 2010, the great majority of the population has free access to much of our cultural heritage. I believe that librarians today are among the most underappreciated and underpaid of all the public servants in the United States.

Publishers today remain concerned about the impact of technology and the Internet, and of course how copyright and Intellectual property laws are developing. What’s your take on how the book business is handling the transformation to a digital, networked world?

I admit to some sympathy for the pirate publishers of the 18th century, but I know that publishers today must insist on the strict observation of copyright law. But copyright now covers the life of the author plus 70 years, which makes it impossible for libraries and organizations like the DPLA to provide access to most of the literature from the last century, and I don't think that adequately serves the public good.

Though we have gone through several phases in our views of the Internet, I still see it as a force that makes possible the democratization of access to knowledge. We now have serious concerns about issues like privacy, and the manipulation of politics through the misuse of technology. Nonetheless, we now have it within our power to realize what was only a utopian dream at the time of the Founding Fathers. If I could recommend two changes, I would advocate for creating a more flexible copyright law, and that we take steps to prevent the monopolization of information by commercial giants like Google and Facebook.