Subscription publishing: the first woman was Mary Barber

Friday, 27 April 2018

The first woman to successfully raise a subscription for a book was Mary Barber, whose Poems appeared in 1734. She was a Dublin linen-draper's wife, and some of her poems were about how ghastly it was to be stuck behind the counter, 'in smoaky Dublin pent', when surely, as a poet, she should have been loitering in leafy glades by burbling streams.

Mary Barber wrote lovingly about her children, especially her clever eldest son Con who became a distinguished physician. Some poems are in his voice, complaining about tight clothing or the tedium of learning Latin. She wrote about ageing, and the shock of catching her reflection in the mirror. Her subject-matter was new, and she developed a following.

After asking her supporters if they would advance the money to pay the printer, she set about collecting half the price of a volume from each one, making careful note of their names.There was a risk to them: the book might not appear. When it did, they paid the other half and received their copy. To raise enough took years, and much hard work, as well as help from well-placed friends like Jonathan Swift. The names of the loyal and patient subscribers were all listed in the handsome quarto.

Mary Barber was a mother of three who worked in a shop in the 1720s. I'm thinking of her now with renewed respect.

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