Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

The Upside Down: The 18th Century’s Ultimate #BookToker

John Mitchinson explores what the novelist behind a 1759 masterpiece can teach us about the importance of marketing as a publisher

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

Wherever publishers gather, you can be sure the talk will be of TikTok and how it is transforming the way books are sold. 

In an industry powered by word of mouth, the short-form video platform has enabled readers and writers to take direct control of their marketing – and the results can be startling. With 146 billion views, #BookTok has quickly become the world’s biggest book club. 

Nor is it just purveyors of romantic fiction like Colleen Hoover who are benefitting. When my company Unbound launched a paperback version of the obscure 1934 book-length puzzle Cain’s Jawbone in 2021, our expectations were modest. As of today, it has sold 600,000 copies in the English language edition and hit top-10 rankings in six other countries.

It all began with a video made by a San Franciscan BookToker who cut up the book and turned her bedroom into a murder wall. Three days later, she had generated nine million views, and the book immediately sold out everywhere (it is now in its tenth printing).

There’s a pleasing symmetry to the story – the royalties earned by the book go to the Laurence Sterne Trust, the charity that manages Shandy Hall, the place where Sterne wrote his 1759 masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and now a museum that boasts one of the world’s finest collections of experimental literature. It was the curator there who found Cain’s Jawbone (and its solution) and brought it to my attention. It’s hard not to speculate over just how much Sterne would have enjoyed this, as he had prepared his own passage to celebrity as carefully as any young TikToker.

He underwrote the first printing himself, having persuaded the celebrated bookseller and publisher Robert Dodsley to advertise it in his shop in Pall Mall. Rather than waiting for the critics, Sterne engaged Georgian England’s most famous ‘influencer’.

He asked his friend (and probably mistress) the young singer Kitty Fourmantel if she would mind sending the actor David Garrick a letter. Sterne dictated the text in a way that was likely to pique Garrick’s interest – “the Graver people however say, tis not fit for young Ladies to read his Book, so perhaps you’ll think it is not fit for a young Lady to recommend it”. Garrick not only became a patron and an enthusiastic fan, he gave Sterne the use of his private box at Drury Lane.

The Upside Down: Why Folk Songs Still Mean Something

The longer we look at this traditional music, the more we see that its very malleability is its strength and its challenge, writes John Mitchinson

By the time Sterne arrived in London, three months after publication, the book was sold out and its author the talk of the town.

Sterne quickly concluded a deal for a 5,000-copy reprint with Dodsley for £250 (about £40,000) and, using a similar ‘suggestive’ letter, persuaded the most famous artist of the day, William Hogarth, to contribute two engravings to the second edition. Illustrations in books were rare then – illustrations by Hogarth unheard of.

In an equally audacious move, he dedicated the book to the Prime Minister, William Pitt, currently riding high in public opinion after a recent string of military victories over France. 

A sure sign of the book’s success were the many pirate editions and imitations that flooded the market (like The Life and Opinions of Miss Sukey Shandy of Bow Street), and that the name ‘Tristram Shandy’ soon found itself applied to card games, dances, a soup and a racehorse. In order to guarantee the authenticity of later volumes, Sterne hand-signed an estimated 12,750 books.

Another ruse was to include one of his own sermons in the novel, attributed to Parson Yorick. The text mentions that there are more available – “enough to make a handsome volume”. Dodsley took the hint and, in May 1760, published a two-volume spin-off edition of The Sermons of Parson Yorick, with a subscriber list that included a dozen earls and seven bishops as well as Garrick, Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and the radical, John Wilkes. It soon outsold Tristram Shandy.

In his famously inaccurate prediction – “nothing odd will do long: Tristram Shandy didn’t last” – Samuel Johnson had failed to read the national mood. Tristram Shandy marked a turning point in the democratisation of literature. Sterne’s books weren’t just patronised by the great and the good, they were bought in shops by a growing community of ‘unlearned readers’. 

When he forced Dodsley at huge expense and difficulty to include a double-sided marbled page in the middle of volume three, Sterne created the first ‘personalised’ book. Every marbled page was subtly different; and every reader, whatever their education, was rendered equal in front of the whirling pattern. No one was more or less able to interpret the moral significance of what he called “the motly emblem” of his work. 

In a playful and memorable way, Sterne was telling readers he was on their side. He would have loved #Booktok.

Written by

This article was filed under
, ,