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Books as a Commodity: Publishers & Booksellers

Let's begin our exploration of the book as a commodity by defining the vocabulary.

The booktrade involves all aspects of book production, distribution, and sale in a particular country including standards, codes, and accepted practices.

try itTry It!
Explore the John Murray Timeline as an example of a publishing firm's over 200 year in the business. The archive includes works by Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, and David Livingstone.

abroadBook publishing is the process of producing and disseminating books. The business includes negotiating contracts with authors and other content providers, editing manuscripts, designing book layout, selecting printing specifications, and arranging for distribution.

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica described publishing as "a purely commercial affair" focusing on profits rather than literary quality.

A publisher is a person or business that produces and distributes books for sale. The name of the publisher is generally printed on the bottom of the title page of a book.

The image on the right shows a title page from the book Abroad by Marcus Ward & Company in Belfast, London, and New York.

A distributor is someone who markets a publication within a specific area. The distributor may or may not be directly connected with a particular publisher.

An advertisement is a public notice that a book is available for sale through subscription, purchase, or other means. These ads appeared in newspapers and magazines, as well as on posters. In many cases, advertisements were placed at the end of a book promoting related books by the publisher. Promotional materials printed at the end of the back matter of a book are called adverts. Blurbs are used on the dust jacket on the front flap of a book to provide a description of the book and sometimes reviews.

In the example below, the first image shows the title page for the book The Art of Caricaturing. In the back matter of the book is an advertisement for A Complete Course in Cartooning. The book can be purchased for two dollars.


Booksellers are in the business of selling books on the retail market generally through a physical or virtual bookstore.

A bestseller is a trade book with a high volume of sales and circulation. Generally, it is a highly publicized book in high demand. For the past century, periodicals and blogs often generate lists of bestsellers in different categories.

Read Weldon, Alexis (2013). The Economics of Print. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.

The Business of Books

The book has always been connected to business. At first these businesses were run by printers often as a family business. Over time, these businesses grew into corporations. Although a vast majority of the publishing business today is run by a few corporations, an increasing number of niche publishers and self-publishing businesses have emerged with the growth of digital media and the Internet.

strathanIn Dr. Johnson's Printer: The Life of William Strahan, Cochrane (1964, ix) states

"It was and is no ordinary trade in which William Strahan exercised his abilities. It is practised by men no more intelligent than those engaged in other lines of business; its rewards are, commercially, trifling in relation to the industry and shrewdness it calls into play; as an occupation it entrails fully as much of the humdrum drudgery, the pettiness of detail, as it exhibited in any manner of earning a living. But the book trade is distinguished from any other by the fact that its fundamental staple is ideas, even though the tangible expression of those ideas is bought and sold much like other commodities."

The image on the right shows William Strahan.

Feather (2002, 10) described the market for books.

"The market for books is essentially determined by two factors: the number of those able to read and who wish to do so, and their ability to obtain reading matter. The commercial book trade, of which publishing is a part, depends on both. It is not, however essential that all readers can afford to buy the books they want. Access to libraries may satisfy their needs, in which case it is the library which becomes the customer rather than the reader. Literacy is, however, fundamental."

Feather (2002, 1) states that

"Publishing, as it is generally understood, is the commercial activity of putting books into the public domain. Publishers decide what to publish and then cause it to be produced in a commercially viable physical form; the product is then advertised and sold through a network of wholesalers and retailers."

allen laneIn The Return of the Publisher to Book History: the Case of Allen Lane, Alistair McCleery (2002) stresses that the publishers are an overlooked and sometimes even vilified player in book history.

McCleery (2002, 161) notes that "there are references to publishing houses, but few, if any, names of publishers or editors associated with them."

McCleery continues "that the human figure should be a publisher, and recognized for contributions to book history, demands a further thawing - of perceptions of the publisher's role." (McCleery, 2002, 163).

For instance according to Penguin Books,

"Allen Lane had the revolutionary idea to offer affordable, quality paperback books through outlets like railway stations and newsagents as well as bookshops. He wanted to make good books as accessible and cheap to procure as a pack of cigarettes at a kiosk. Lane launched his new line of books on July 30, 1935, with ten inexpensive paperbacks."

The image on the left shows Allen Lane. Courtesy of Penguin Books.

Read McCleery, Alistair (2002). The return of the publisher to book history: the case of Allen Lane. Book History, 5, 161-185. IUPUI students can view the article online.

The Economics of Book Production

flanceAt the beginning of the printing era, the Master Printer was responsible for seeking financing, printing, as well as selling works. However between the 16th and 18th century, much of the Master Printer's responsibilities were being shifted two the role of bookseller-publisher. Printing became a much more commercial venture.

These bookseller-publishers negotiated with print shops, booksellers, and potential patrons. A number of funding methods appeared during the 16th, 17th, and 18th century. The French introduced the idea of a number of investors sharing the risks associated with printing and the profits made from sales.

The image on the left shows a man leaning on a bookseller's booth between 1765-1800.

In 17th century England, subscription publishing became popular. A businessman created a prospectus, encouraged patrons to sign up, and used the subscriptions to fund the printing of a work.

gillAnother approach was installment publishing. Books were issued in parts to spread the costs over time. Early returns on investment were used to finance future production costs.

The image on the right shows the outside of a bookshop published by James Gillray in London in 1796.

In many countries, cartels were formed to regulate the publishing industry and reduce labor problems. Brotherhoods were formed by workers to rally laborers.

The basic economics of publishing have remained the same since the fifteenth century. Once the book was typeset, many copies could be reproduced.

"The more copies that are produced, the lower the unit cost of producing each copy, since the initial cost of typesetting remains the same whether the print run is one copy, or a hundred, or a thousand. On the other hand, a second print run could cost almost as much as the first... Thus, the printer sought to print the number of copies that could be sold in a reasonable time and would meet the total demand for the book. In the meantime, until these books were sold, there would be no income, and until a significant percentage of the print run was sold there would be no profit. There was thus an incentive to sell the books as quickly and as efficiently as possible once the printing was completed.

Ann Smart Martin (1993, 142) in her article Makers, buyers, and users: Consumerism as a material culture framework, described three debates surrounding the study of consumerism:

Research in consumerism has been taking place for a long time, particular in the area of household goods including books. Martin notes that "much of their early scholarship concerned describing (what is it?), identifying (who made it?), dating (how old is it?), and judging (is this as good as that?)" (1993, 145).

JapanMartin (1993, 156) noted that "there are three prerequisites for an object to make its may into the possession of any person: it must be affordable, available, and desirable."

The image on the right shows a bookstore in Tokyo.

The economics of book production have evolved over time, however some elements seem to be consistent. Today, books first appear in hardcover followed by paperback. Later, they may be picked up as reprints for mass market paperbacks. However this is changing with the introduction of ebooks. Often the hardcover and ebook are offered the same day.

Sales Techniques and Advertising

Over the centuries a number of sales techniques and advertising techniques have emerged to sell books.

The book itself can be an effective sales tool. During the 16th and 17th century title pages contained elaborate titles and descriptions to attract buyers. Quality illustrations were also used to sell books. Book bindings and later book cover art were used to make books look more attractive on store shelves.

Posters, broadsides, and advertisements in newspapers and magazines were also used to sell books.

The images below show book advertisements.

jungle bookflyingpocket


Issues in Shipping

In many cases, shipping could take up a major proportion of a book's total cost.

Darnton (1982, 77) notes that "little is known about the way books reached bookstores from printing shops. The wagon, the canal barge, the merchant vessel, the post office, and the railroad may have influenced the history of literature more than one would suspect."

Weather and the seasons impacted the shipment of books. During the harvest, wagons might not be available to move product. Winter limited travel over mountains and to ice-locked ports.

War provided major obstacles for shippers.

The smuggling industry found unique ways to transport their goods.

Understanding through Primary Sources

bookmanA wealth of primary and secondary source materials are available for gaining insights into the role of the book as a commodity. For instance, many professional publishers and booksellers are involved with professional organizations. These group maintain membership records, minutes to committee meetings, and professional publications.

The image on the left shows the cover to an 1986 issue of The Bookman, a trade publication for booksellers.

By analyzing the personal papers of master book sellers and examining the ledgers of publishers, book historian can learn about the individuals and companies that play a role in what Darnton calls the "communication circuit."

It's useful to explore the primary source materials generated by an individual printer, publisher, or bookseller. For instance, Cochrane (1964, x) published a book examining the life of William Strahan, an 18th century printer. He communicated with people like Samuel Johnson, David Hume, and Benjamin Franklin.

"His letters inform us of problems that still vex the trade - discounts and prices, books that 'stick' and others that sell too fast for the stock, payments to authors, rival or pirated editions, the iniquities and the loyalties of fellow-printers and publishers, anxieties over capital and credit."

Researchers use ledger books, subscription lists, advertising, sales reports, correspondence, contracts, and other types of documents to understand the role of the publisher.

According to Weedon (2003, 20), the documents related to the book trade of the Victorian era include a

"range from the anecdotal, such as publisher memoirs, to handbooks for printers and statistics on the tonnage of paper produced... Government reports, the blue books, are a very useful source of statistical data on trade, including, for instance, the growth of the paper industry, book and stationery exports and duties payable on printed materials in both Britain and the Empire."

Postcards, illustrations, and photographs help researchers visualize bookshops, lending libraries, and subscription libraries.


The image above shows the interior view of the Jones & Co bookselling premises in London.

Many "house histories" have been written. These secondary sources explore specific book publishers and book sellers.

The wills of printers, publishers, and booksellers can also provide interesting insights.

try itTry It!
Skim Abstracts from the Wills of English Printers and Stationers from 1492 to 1630 by Henry R. Plomer. Read an excerpt from one of the wills. Learn more about this individual.

Oral histories are another way to gain insights into booksellers. Examples include David Magree: Bookselling and Creating Books (1969) by Ruth Teiser and Warren R. Howell: Two San Francisco Bookmen (1967) by Ruth Teiser.

It's useful to examine the book trade using maps. For instance, the Rhode Island Historical Society developed The Atlas of the Rhode Island Book Trade in the Eighteenth Century. This interactive map pinpoints the book trade in this area at a particular point in time.

try itTry It!
Go to The Atlas of the Rhode Island Book Trade in the Eighteenth Century.
Think about how maps can be used to visualize the book trade at different points in time.

Many researchers use digital collections to compare the various editions of books by different publishers.

Read Barchas, Janine (2013). Sense, Sensibility, and Soap: An Unexpected Case Study in Digital Resources for Book History. Book History, 16, 185-214. IUPUI students can view the article online.


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