On C 18-L, Ellen Moody relays a claim from SCOTT-L that Penguin's newest edition of Sir Walter Scott's Redgauntlet--taken from the spiffy Edinburgh scholary edition--has sold exactly twenty-six copies. If true, that doesn't bode well for additional reprints of Scott's fiction, but the low sales on their own aren't especially shocking. Both Penguin Classics and Oxford World's Classics rely heavily on academic marketing for their sales, which means that books stay in print as long as instructors want to assign them. And there's the rub. While there are more and more scholars interested in British Romantic fiction--long the bankrupt (never mind poor!) cousin of Romantic poetry--courses in the British novel often smash the early nineteenth century between the Scylla and Charybdis of long eighteenth-century novels and equally long Victorian novels. (This syllabus is a typical example.) Courses devoted specifically to the nineteenth-century British novel often plump for Jane Austen over Sir Walter. See, for example, these syllabi from Dan Bivona, Patricia Craddock, David Latane, Barry Milligan, Prof. O'Hara, Laura Runge, Julie Shaffer, and Chris Vanden Bossche; Lynn Alexander offers a rare exception to this rule.
It's not as though there's some secret academic conspiracy devoted to avoiding Scott. Indeed, from a purely literary-historical standpoint, Scott is arguably the more important novelist: everybody who was anybody (or nobody) in nineteenth-century British, European, and American literary circles read Scott, imitated Scott, rewrote Scott, argued with Scott, and, in general, tried to outdo Scott. One of the things about course design, though, is that literary history sometimes needs to give way to more pragmatic issues--such as the likelihood that your students will use the assigned reading as kindling for a March Madness bonfire instead of, well, actually reading it.* Jane Austen's sprightly and ironic prose usually succeeds with undergraduates where Scott's more ponderous style fails (although, of course, some people teach some Scott with considerable success). In any event, an instructor who wants to teach Scott probably won't head for Redgauntlet, a novel with the unfortunate distinction of being better known for its brilliant inset ghost story, "Wandering Willie's Tale," than for the plot proper. I imagine that many of us appreciate having the opportunity to own a cheap printing of a text from the Edinburgh edition of Scott, but that's not the same thing as saying that we're all bursting to assign one.
Perhaps we could coin a term for this publishing-and-purchasing syndrome, something along the lines of "nonstudentreadershipitis." (Presumably, somebody out there--maybe the headless one--will be capable of coming up with a term that might actually strike someone as amusing...) Pandora's Mothers of the Novel series and Penguin's Virago imprint both died of this fatal disease: scholars happily rushed to acquire copies of difficult-to-find novels like Geraldine Jewsbury's Zoe or Charlotte Smith's Emmeline, but didn't assign them to students. Similarly, speaking as a scholarly reader, I adore Broadview Press, which brings all sorts of interesting things back into print. But does anyone anticipate a headlong drive to teach, say, Amy Levy's** Reuben Sachs? Or, at least, to teach it to undergraduates? While it's nice to have a reasonably priced edition that's separate from the Melvyn New collection of Levy's works, the novel itself depends so heavily on contemporary religious and literary context--among other things, it cocks a sarcastic eyebrow in Daniel Deronda's direction--that it's unlikely to work in anything but an advanced undergraduate or graduate seminar. It's nice having these books around, but it's not always clear for whom they're intended.
*--Which is why none of us are battering down the door to teach anything by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, although he's one of the most influential novelists of the Victorian era. Somehow, I suspect that Bulwer-Lytton's magenta prose and his bizarre brand of mysticism would be voted least likely to succeed with the 18-to-22 demographic. Or, for that matter, any other demographic. (That being said, "The Haunted and the Haunters" holds up nicely.)
**--For some reason, Amazon keeps listing forthcoming Broadview reprints under the editor's name--in this case, Susan Bernstein--instead of the author's.