An enlightened conservative
Elie Luzac published more than 200,000 pages in print. When he brought out the highly inflammatory L’Homme Machine, it was out of deep conviction but also with a keen sense of profit. The work was subsequently burnt, and its publisher put on trial. Luzac was eventually fined 2,000 guilders, the equivalent of 35,000 Euro. In other books, Luzac confronted Rousseau with a heated polemic. To the last of his life, he defended the claims of the House of Orange, in a climate of mounting patriotism, in the Dutch Republic. By all rights he can be called an enlightened conservative bookseller and a philosophe. Van Vliet’s book is a passionate story about Elie Luzac’s life and the place of the Dutch book trade in the national and European context in the years 1750-1800.
‘Dutch publishers were able to dominate the European book markets for decades on end’, Rietje van Vliet says. This was already the case in the seventeenth century. In the following century too the sky seemed to be the limit when it came to the foreign market. The Dutch became ‘the brokers of our ideas’, as Luzac wrote in his Hollands rijkdom. He himself was convinced that conditions in the Dutch Republic were ideal for the role the book trade had to play; there were many internationally acclaimed scholars working in the Republic, the quality of the printing was high and the prices relatively low, and there was freedom of the press. Luzac was a highly successful networker, especially in such countries as Germany and France, and his business thrived as a result.
This flourishing situation in the Republic changed around 1760, van Vliet remarks, when Dutch publishers began to lose their competitive edge in the West-European book trade. Instead, they began to focus on the domestic market. ‘This is also clear from what Luzac published in those days. From that time on, he mostly brought out works dealing with strictly national issues. He never stopped publishing books that expressed his political republican ideals, or works on freedom of thinking and acting. But towards the end of his life, the spirit of the time had caught up with him.’
The publisher as a peer reviewer
No academic writer can survive without a publisher, now as much as in Luzac’s time. He was known and celebrated as a scholarly publisher and everybody wanted to be published by him. ‘Luzac was a sharp thinker and debater, as appears from his correspondence with a man like Jean Henri Formey, the learned secretary of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Luzac read all his manuscripts, and he also reviewed and edited them for Formey. As an editor he was as imperious as he felt was necessary. A peer reviewer avant la lettre, I suppose you might call him.’
No author’s rights but copyright
Still a young man, Luzac already ran a publishing, printing and bookselling firm on Leiden’s highly exclusive Rapenburg. From there he built up a vast network that came to include almost every Enlightenment author who meant anything. Van Vliet: ‘They liked to have him
as their publisher, even if he put a pirated edition of their work on the market. There was no such thing as author’s rights, even though a publisher could lay claim to some form of copyright. Beyond provincial or national borders, books were, you might say, a free-for-all commodity, and anyone could pirate them. It was a lucrative trade for the publisher, but the customers also benefited, because pirated editions kept prices sharp.’
Luzac’s own publishing list also includes pirated editions. He was quick to cash in, for instance on a blazing row between his friend Samuel König and the uncrowned Berlin bully Maupertuis about the latter’s unashamed plagiary of Leibniz: ‘The Leiden publisher brought out a volley of König’s accusatory essays and Voltaire’s malicious attacks, but he also printed pirated editions of the work of Maupertuis. Three men who would happily drink each other’s blood, forced to coexist on one and the same publisher’s list.’