STN: the early years, 1769-1771

During its first two years of trading the STN sold only a modest number of titles, all of which issued from its own presses. Heady ambitions voiced in the summer of 1769 – plans to realise Samuel Fauche’s long-held dream of publishing an edition of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and projected printings of the Descriptions des arts et métiers and the Encyclopédie – initially gave way to hard-headed pragmatism. The Society was presented with a classic chicken-and-egg bind: how could it build the requisite international networks to sell books without a substantial list of books to sell? After much consultation and head scratching, a three-pronged strategy emerged: accept printing commissions; concentrate on local markets; and partner with experienced houses. As commissions, the STN produced 600 copies of two tracts concerning the Genevan ‘affaire des natifs’ for the Neuchâtelois clockmaker and political agitator Georges Auzière in March 1770, as well as 1,000 copies of the ‘Tableau de la Monarchie française’ for Louis Valentin de Goëzman in Paris in May 1771. For regional buyers, it published STN director Samuel Ostervald’s geographical textbooks, an edition of his father Jean Frédéric Ostervald’s Abrégé de l’histoire sainte, et du catéchisme, and a translation of a Swiss-German work concerning the abolition of monasteries in Catholic cantons, the Reflexions d’un Suisse sur cette question: seroit-il avantageux aux l cantons catholiques d’abolir les ordres réguliers. The remainder of the Society’s output were nouveautés destined for international distribution in conjunction with partners in Bern, Brussels, Cleves, The Hague, Lyon and Paris.

The cooperative approach ensured that these early works were well chosen and widely and promptly disseminated. Take, for example, the 1770 edition of the Lettres du comte Algarotti sur la Russie by the Italian philosopher and essayist Francesco Algarotti. This collection of observations about Russian economic might and mores in the wake of the Russo-Turkish War of 1735-1739 had been first published in Italian nearly a decade previously to little international acclaim. By 1768, however, tensions in northern Europe were rising, and Algarotti’s ready-made historical refresher appeared a good fit for the coffee-supping classes of Paris and Amsterdam who were anticipating a renewal of hostilities. The first French-language edition duly appeared towards the end of that year to instructive but consistently lukewarm notices. (see
Année littéraire 1768, VIII, 169-180; Mercure de France, January 1769, 65-69 ; Journal des Beaux Arts, June 1769, 478-487 ; Journal de Sçavans, December 1769, 812-814.) By October 1769, as the Russians took the Moldavian capital of Jassy, the STN’s Nouveau Journal Helvétique insisted that the importance of Algarotti’s work had been overlooked. Before long, the Neuchâtelois had concluded the necessary deals to put to press a new edition, augmented with an essay specifically linking the text to the current conflict. Speed was of the essence in order to stay ahead of both the Russians and any potential competitors who might have stumbled upon the same idea. Between 6 and 15 February 1770, the STN printed 995 copies. 200 of these were dispatched immediately to the Société typographique de Berne. Nine days later, 500 examples were sent to Pierre Gosse junior and Daniel Pinet in The Hague, and 150 more were forwarded to J.B. Henry and Company in Lille, on France’s border with the Austrian Netherlands. From the STN’s perspective, the edition had been printed and 85 per cent exhausted within three weeks, all before Catherine the Great’s forces had awoken from their winter slumber.

Printing and initial sales of Lettres du comte Algarotti sur la Russie from Burrows and Curran, FBTEE Database.

This particular arrangement left the Neuchâtelois with a manageable 145 copies to sell directly; other printings left them with less or more. By the end of September 1771, the STN had sent out a total of 13,331 books, 7,977 of which had been commissioned or were to be distributed by partners. By examining how they dealt with the difference – the 5,354 works sold directly to booksellers based in 30 different towns – we can see the precise extent of the Society’s networks by this moment. Certainly, some 3,000 sales (56 %) achieved to traders located in 15 towns dotted around French-speaking Switzerland suggest that their editions encountered relatively little resistance close to home. From the get-go, the STN sold works to Geneva, Lausanne, Le Locle, Morges, Vevey, Yverdon and – through Fauche’s moonlighting – Neuchâtel itself. Beyond Switzerland, their sales were dominated by an arc of relatively nearby towns that stretched from Grenoble in south-eastern France to Manheim in the Rhineland, and took in the francophone book centres of Besançon, Lyon and Nancy. 1296 (24 %) sales had been realised to this particular fertile crescent. Some inroads had also been made within the natural markets for Swiss traders of southern France and northern Italy. 208 books (4 %) had been sold to Montpellier and Nimes, whilst 528 works (10 %) had been dispatched to Milan, Genoa and Florence. Only 218 (4%) books were directly shipped further afield. No consignments were sent to western and northern France, Great Britain, Ireland, Russia, Spain, or to the majority of the German states and southern Italy.

Aggregated STN sales from the society’s first shipments in 1769 to 30 September 1771 from Burrows and Curran FBTEE database.

In short, after two years of trading, the STN’s direct distribution networks remained somewhat stunted and, as a consequence, liquidity began to become a problem for the business for the first time. During 1771, having exhausted the 9,000 livres Neuchâtelois that Bertrand, Fauche and Ostervald had initially sunk into the business, the Society was forced to borrow 1,000 livres from the Chambre de Charité and another 2,000 livres from the Master-Bourgeois Jacques-Samuel Wavre. (See BPUN STN MS 1033, 70, 80, 97.) At least the subtleties of their bind were starting to crystallise: long-distance clients tended to desire varied stocks by the crateful, primarily to economise on shipping costs; middle-distance traders, perhaps based in Lausanne or Lyon, regularly wanted to swap rather than buy books in order to shift their own printings; and because local retail buyers were so limited in number, the only way to increase counter revenues was to offer more choice and encourage repeat purchasing. A new approach would be necessary.