Characterizing the Annuals

Annual Production Technology and Marketing Strategy

        In the early nineteenth century technological advances in stereotype printing and mechanical papermaking reduced publication costs and increased the number of books and periodicals available to all classes of readers.  The variety of stories, poems, essays, and travelogues available in the periodicals led to a stratification of tastes in middle and upper class readers, and according to Lee Erickson turned "their interest from narrative verse to short prose fiction" (Erickson 1).  With the development of steel engraved illustrations and elaborate embossed bindings, the stage was set for the marketing of a compact book-like album of short stories, poems, and engraved illustrations elegantly bound and suitable for a seasonal gift.  This discussion will center on the evolving format of literary annuals, and the way it was influenced by the culture of reader-consumers as perceived by publishers pursuing commercial objectives.

        British annuals were begun by a London print merchant named Rudolph Ackermann who decided that he could promote the sale of his prints by combining the elements of the German
Das Tachenbuch with the English almanac into a print illustrated pocket-sized book that "united the agreeable with the useful" (Ackermann 1).  Consequently, in November of 1822, he published the first British literary annual, Forget-Me-Not, for 1823, and thus began a publishing fad that would span three decades and produce millions of annuals with total sales of several million pounds sterling as will be shown later.

Forget-Me-Not for 1823 has pale blue-green glazed paperboards with a blue cloth spine, both covers printed with a decorative title and design, and is in a slipcase bearing the same design.  The contents reflected its almanac side by including, in addition to two poems and eight prose selections, a genealogy of European sovereigns, the populations of Great Britain and principal cities, and an historical chronicle of 1822.  The following year another annual, Friendship's Offering, was launched with essentially the same range of contents, including descriptions of great world cities, weather and holiday guides, coach fares and Waterman rates.  Near the end of 1824, when The Literary Souvenir, edited by Alaric Watts, appeared, it was strictly a literary and artistic miscellany with pocket book, almanac, and diary elements omitted (Watts 172).  All other annuals soon dropped their pocket almanac features in favor of a more literary format that set the standard for subsequent literary annuals.  The annuals were still assembled and published in November as gifts for the holiday season, but retained a schedule that conformed to the almanac's first of year appearance; however, the gift aspect of presentation was expanded to include birthdays and year round appreciation.

        By 1831, the number of major literary annuals increased to twenty. The annuals were somewhat characterized by their editorial voices. Watts, who was also a minor poet, openly aired his grievances against reviewers and other editors in the prefaces to his annuals.  Other editors used their prefaces in a conversational way to declare their editorial objectives or to justify their choices.  Editors initially chose poetry, prose, and engravings that would be attractive for family reading by conservative, middle-class families.  Branford Booth comments that the gift book had to "mirror the conventional standards and established virtues: for king and country, home and family, morality, and the Church of England," if it were to be presented to one's mother, sister, or sweetheart (Booth 7).  Some editors paid high fees to get contributions from literary celebrities to give the impression of overall high quality.

      Charles Heath and the editor of
The Keepsake, Frederic Manse Reynolds, made a pilgrimage to Scotland and the Lake District, enlisting great writers of the time to contribute to their annual.  Sir Walter Scott wrote in 1828, "The world...seems to be mad about Forget-Me-Nots and Christmas Boxes, here has been Heath, the artist, offering me 800 pounds sterling per annum to take charge of such a concern" (Jack 175).  Southey received 50 guineas for a piece he called "a pig in a poke" (Watts 270). In all, Heath spent 1,524 guineas for literary pieces out of 11,000 guineas budgeted for the entire 1829 edition of The Keepsake (Hunnisett "Steel" 143).  Heath's publishers took financial control from him because they thought this extravagance would not be recovered from the copies sold.  Contrary to the trend of reducing production costs, the literary annuals sold at a relatively high price to allow the recipient of the gift book to appreciate its deluxe status, and while making the gift more precious, defrayed the added cost of including a dozen engraved illustrations and gilt-embossed silk or leather bindings.