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Books as a Commodity : 15th - 16th Century

The book publishing industry began in the urban areas. Printers congregated in those areas where potential customers existed. Nobles, lawyers, ecclesiastics, and professionals needed and wanted these books.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the roles of printer, publisher, and bookseller was often combined into one operation. The works produced were often reprints of books written during earlier times or translations.

The image below is intended to represent publishing in 16th century England. Created in 1877, it depicts William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and the Queen.


The Roles of Printer, Publisher, and Bookseller

markIn England, a trade guild known as the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers known as the Stationers' Company was established in 1403. Those involved with printing, publishing, and bookselling became known as stationers. They were simply a trade guild with little power until 1557, when they organization received a Royal Charter of Incorporation. This charter gave the Stationers' Company a monopoly over publishing in England.

The image on the right shows the Stationers' Company mark.

According to Feather (2002, 4),

"The first English printer, William Caxton, was a publisher as much as he was a printer. What this means is that Caxton, as well as owning the means of production, was financially responsible for the process and subsequently responsible for putting the printed books into circulation for sale. This combination of the roles of printer, publisher and bookseller remained common for much of the sixteenth century, when printing began to separate from the other activities."

Feather (2002) notes that the activities of printer and publisher began to separate toward the end of the 16th century. These new tradesmen focused on financing the production and sale of books. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, books were often sold through markets and fairs. London booksellers traveled to country fairs.

Read Imho, Dirk (March 2016). Three future Cologne publishers as apprentices in Antwerp: Bernhard Wolters, Johann Kinckius, Cornelis van Egmont. The Library, 17(1), 3-27. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Throughout history, Bibles have been an important source of income for booksellers. This was particularly true during time of religious revival. For instance during the 16th century, the Reformation brought a surge of interest in Bibles. According to Henry Curwen (1873, 17) in A History of Booksellers, The Old and the New,

"so great was the rush for this new supply of hitherto forbidden knowledge that we have no less than three hundred and twenty-six editions, or parts of editions, of the English Bible."

Shakespeare and Publishers

shakespeareIn Shakespeare and the Book, Kastan (2001) notes that Shakespeare showed little interest in the publication of books based on his plays. However book publishers immediately saw a market. Kastan (2001, 9) states that

"although Shakespeare did indeed write his plays to be performed, they quickly escaped his control, surfacing as books to be read and allowing Shakespeare to 'live' no less vitally in print than he does in the theatre."

After his death, Shakespeare's plays were

"brought back to life by the very act of publication... his plays found their way into print because of (and indeed their texts were in various ways configured by) the activities of the English book trade" (Kastan, 2001, 9-11).

Kastan (2001, 11) concludes that Shakespeare

"is arguably the (book) industry's greatest cash cow. Certainly no other English author has made publishers so much money and received so little in return. Shakespeare has become one of the world's most popular writers and managed never to collect a penny in royalties".

The image on the right shows Shakespeares First Folio from 1623.

English and German Presses

When printing first began, the number of titles produced in German was higher than those in English. This shifted during the 17th century.

The image below shows English and German book markets compared during the 16th through 17th Century. Click the image to enlarge the graph.


Book Collecting

Book collecting became popular in the 16th century stimulating developments in printing and the availability of cheaper books.


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