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Books as a Commodity : 17th Century

witchThe publishing industry expanded rapidly toward the end of the 17th century. Books could be found on a wide range of topics.

The image on the right is the frontispiece page from a book on witchcraft titled Saducismus Triumphatus first published in London in 1681.

As the publishing industry expanded, Master Printers found they couldn't do everything. Publishers took over the funding and sales aspects of the book industry and in most cases also ran a bookstore selling directly to the public. Shaylor (1912, 223-224) states

"by a system of association, the principal booksellers produced for themselves most of the books they sold, and in many cases they employed authors to write them... By this system of co-operative publishing, prices were fixed, discounts regulated and all trade questions easily adjusted. The cost of producing a book was borne by this circle of publisher-booksellers, who were called partners, and the books thus produced were usually of popular character."

Booksellers and bookstores emerged. In The Fascination of Books (1912), Joseph Shaylor notes that booksellers became the master of the book trade.

The image below from 1641 shows the many positions available in the publishing industry during this time.


Many of these new publishers and booksellers began as printing or bookseller apprentices. After their apprenticeship, they opened their own businesses. While some of these businessmen were honest, others were simply seeking to make money. Shaylor (1912) concludes that during this time

"the reprinting in its entirety of an successful work without the sanction of either author or publisher was a common practice. Booksellers openly sold these unauthorised editions, and the rightful owner of the works, whose property was thus unblushingly appropriated, had no redress. Fictitious title-pages were not infrequently introduced by the booksellers, and were not confined to any particular class of literature, being employed alike for fiction, poetry, and even biography, often causing great scandal and annoyance." (21)

In Life of the Right Hon. Francis North, Roger North writes

"It is wretched to consider what pickpocket work, with the help of the press, these demi-booksellers make; they crack their brains to find out selling subjects, and keep hirelings in garrets at hard meat to write and correct by the groat, and so puff up an octavo to a sufficient size." (21)

Thomas Guy

Thomas Guy (1644-1724) was a British publisher and bookseller. After serving as an bookseller apprentice, he started his own bookstore selling Bibles. He was accused by his rivals of paying low wages and selling cheap products. However, Guy's wealth came from his is stock investments. He supported charities including building a hospital.

John Dunton

John Dunton (1659-1733) was an English author as well as a bookseller. Like others during this time, he was apprentice to a bookseller. He became a bookseller, but his wife Elizabeth managed the business. Dunton spent his time traveling and selling books in places like New England.

Dunton published several books like Life and Errors of John Dunton (1700), where he included descriptions of the book trade and publishing quarrels of the times.

The image below shows John Dunton.


Jacob Tonson

tonsonJacob Tonson (c. 1655-1736) was an English publisher and bookseller known as "prince of booksellers".

The image on the left shows Jacob Tonson.

After serving as an apprentice, he was admitted to the Company of Stationers in 1677. Tonson produced editions of John Dryden and John Milton. He also gained the copyright on the plays of William Shakespeare. John Dunton, a fellow bookseller described Tonson (Curwen, 1873, 25).

"He was bookseller to the famous Dryden and is himself a very good judge of persons and authors; and, as there is nobody more competently qualified to give their opinions upon another, so there is none who does it with a more severe exactness, or with less partiality; for, to do Mr. Tonson justice, he speaks his mind upon all occasions, and will flatter nobody."

Tonson was successful financially as a publisher. A peer stated that "Jacob creates poets as kings create knights, not for their honour, but for their money." (Curwen, 1873, 26)

Edmund Curll

auctionEdmund Curll (c. 1675-1747) was an English publisher and bookseller often associated with unscrupulous publications. Unlike Tonson who was well-respected, Curll represents the mercenary side of the profession. He was known to cash in on scandals, erotic literature, medical materials, and controversial topics in politics. Known for manufacturing quarrels and printing opposing views, he sought ways to use controversy to sell pamphlets and books.

The image on the right shows an auctioneer of books left over from a condemned doctor's hanging around 1700 in London.

Publishing both high and low quality works, he began his career selling books at auction. After taking over a bookshop, he produced inexpensive and often unauthorized publications of works originally published by other houses. He walked a fine line between legal and illegal activities. He commissioned "hack" biographies and what were considered indecent publications that came to be known as "Curllcisms".

Richard Savage was a poet sometimes employed by Curll. In The Fascination of Books, Savage was quotes as saying,

"Sometimes I was Mr. John Gay, at others Burnet or Addison; I abridged histories and travels, translated from the French what they never wrote, and was expert in finding out new titles for old books. When a notorious thief was hanged, I was the Plutarch to preserve his memory, and mine the account of his last will and testament." (20)

Many of his publications were really just long advertisements connecting erotic literature with medical content.

The History of the English Stage (1741) is an example of his work. Written by Thomas Betterton and published by Edmund Curll is describes the lives of actors and actresses.

Inexpensive Works

vendorStreet vendors and book peddlers were often seen selling cheap books during the 17th century.

The image on the right shows a woman selling almanacs (1688).

Dutch publishers created inexpensive editions of popular works to appeal to ordinary people. According to Lommen (2012, 141),

"Holland's trade and commerce also helped it to attain Europe's highest literacy rate, enlarging the market for political and religious pamphlets, almanacs, newspapers, songbooks, emblem books and popular literature."

The Elzeviers of Leiden published inexpensive scholarly books and classics. These types of merchants increased the shipping trade. It was a time of great voyages. Information was spread through natural history publications that included a wide assortment of maps.

The image below shows the Palais de Justice in Paris with customers looking at merchandise including books. The image was created in thr 17th century by Abraham Bosse.


Books as Marketing Tools

During the 17th century new types of books were being produced. From technical books to manuals, entrepreneurs were exploring ways that books could be used to sell products and services. They were also looks for new types of books that could be produced. The key was writing for and marketing to a specific audience.

The story of Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) is a great example of matching books with the needs of specific types of customers. A well-known Dutch mathematician and scientist, Huygen invented a number of useful tools such as the pendulum clock. However he had a difficult time convincing people to purchase his instruments. In 1673, he published Horologium Oscillatorium sive de motu pendulorum as a manual of sorts to go with his pendulum and make his invention known. He wrote other books to meet the specific needs of particular audiences.

Howard in his article Marketing Longitude (2008, 60) stresses that

"Huygens actively cultivated heterogeneous audiences for his published works by tailoring them to particular readers and distributing them in strategic ways. Analyzing his authorial intentions in this manner not only enhances our reading of these important works in the history of science, it also helps us understand how mechanics permeated cultural boundaries in early modern Europe."

The image below shows the pendulum and book.


Read Howard, Nicole (2008). Marketing longitude: clocks, kings, courtiers, and Christiaan Hugens. Book History, 11, 59-88. IUPUI students can view the article online.


London Publishing

During the mid 17th century, the printing press played an important role. The introduction of newspapers and pamphlets allowed ideas to be spread quickly. In addition, Royalist literary texts were being produced.

In London Publishing, 1640-1660, John Barnard (2001, 2) suggests that "the two decades of successive political crisis offered the book trade new openings and possibilities that were quickly exploited."

Barnard notes that the Civil Wars and Interregnum "offered opportunities (as well as risks) in meeting the needs of new readers and the creation of new markets." (Barnard, 2001, 3)

Many printers worked for both government and opposition groups. In addition, religious groups like the Quakers and Presbyterians were looking for ways to extend their ministry through book sales.


Coloporteur in Europe

coloporteurColoportage is the distribution of publications by peddlers. The term coloporteur was used to describe a peddler of inexpensive editions who sold his wares in the countryside in Europe.

A French term meaning "neck" and "to carry", these peddlers carried a basket of books attached with a neck strap. They sold books door-to-door and on the street corners.

The coloporteur were shut down by the French government in the late 1700s as part of a movement to suppress ideas related to reform and revolution.

The image on the right shows a coloporteur.

Booksellers and their Catalogues

During the seventeenth century, the stationers became known as booksellers. Booksellers flourished during the rein of Queen Elizabeth and King James. Catalogs became a way for booksellers to share their wares with potential buyers.

In 1658, A Catalogue of the Most Vendible Books in England was published by William London, a bookseller. This bibliographical text provides insights into booksellers and their books. London wanted to not only provide a catalog of printed materials available, but also promote the idea of the practical use of knowledge. In the preface to his catalogue, he states

"If Books be the Spectacles we see through to dall Learning, let's then use them so; branch them forth, and spread their Knowledge".

Schotte (2008, 48) notes that

"William London represents an example of a man of modest means, distanced from the capital yet very much a part of the country's changing intellectual environment. His catalog and the newly founded Royal Society can be seen as manifestations of the same trend toward more accessible information, at a moment when the distinctions between the humanities and sciences were still fluid... London clearly regarded books as tools - or even scientific instruments - to be utilized in the noble project of spreading wisdom."

Skim Schotte, Margaret (2008). "Books for the use of the learned and studious": William London's catalogue of most vendible books. Book History, 11, 3-57. IUPUI students can view the article online.
Skim Cruz, Laura (2007). The secrets of success: microinventions and bookselling in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. Book History, 10, 1-28. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Think about the history of book catalogs. Compare the experience in England with the Netherlands.

Great Fire of London

In 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed the stock of booksellers in London. Because everyone though St. Paul's Cathedral would be safe, printers and booksellers stored their books in Cathedral's crypt. Unfortunately, the church was being restored and was covered with scaffolding. The wooden scaffolding caught fire and the building was quickly engulfed in flames destroying thousands of books.

The image on the left by Rita Greer (2008) depicts the Great Fire of London. The image on the right depicts Ludgate and Old St. Paul's during the Great Fire of London (1670).


In 1673, Robert Clavell published A Catalogue of Books Printed in England Since the Dreadful Fire of London in 1666. In the preface, he writes from "the stationer to the reader",

"(I) thought it not materials to mention those Printed before the Fire, there being then such as general destruction of Books (and scarcity, till Re-printed) that the loss of our particular Trade in Books onely, was valied at One hundred and fifty thousand pounds."

Licenser of Press

In 1693, England repealed the Act of 1662 that had placed restrictions of the number of master printers allowed in the country.



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