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Books as a Commodity: 18th Century

marektDuring the 18th century, the roles began to shift again. Gradually the roles of publisher and bookseller began to split.

According to Cochrane (1964, x), "the book trade developed an efficient organization. As a result, incidentally, it was equipped to exploit to the full the expansion made possible by the increase of literacy and by the stream press."

According to Feather (2002), the term publisher came into use in the early 18th century to describe people involved with the distribution of pamphlets and other ephemera.

However it wasn't until the early 19th century that publisher began it's modern meaning associated with mainstream book publishing.

The image on the right shows the distribution of publications in London's Book Market in 1700 based on catalogues. Click the image to enlarge it.


dorothyThe role of the bookseller had become well-established by the 18th century. While men generally owned the businesses, women were often involved in store operations and occasionally inherited a store or took over after the death of her husband.

The image on the right shows a card for Dorthy Mercier, Printseller and Stationer (1760-64).

According to Tierney (2003, xiv),

"Today, a bookseller is normally one who keeps a shop where book of many publishers are displayed and sold. The eighteenth-century bookseller, however did much more than sell books. Much of his time was spent soliciting, reading, and negotiating the purchase of manuscripts, which he then proceeded to print, publish, advertise, and circulate. In short, an eighteenth-century bookseller functioned much like the modern publisher, except that he also sold books in a retail shop.

On the other hand, the eighteenth-century publisher operated on a lower rung of the trade ladder. He rarely purchased copyrights, published primarily pamphlets or short works, frequently served as a distributor for booksellers' ware, and sometimes published works for booksellers to which the latter chose not to put their names."

The image below from 1784 is titled Bookseller and Author by Thomas Rowlandson.


Book Advertisements

enDarnton (1979, 523-524) stated that advertising for the Encyclopédie in eighteenth century France provided insights into the publishing industry as well as product consumers. He states

"if read as historical document, slanted advertisements can be more revealing than straight avis because they show how sellers thought their products would appear to the public. In the propaganda for the quarto, the publishers emphasized that their customers would get a compendium of modern knowledge and a synthesis of modern philosophy, all in one...

To ask whether the Encyclopédie was a reference work or a manifesto of Enlightenment is to pose a false problem, for it was meant to combine those characteristics, and it was presented as a combination of them, by its promoters as well as its authors...

they expected the public to buy the book for the reasons they cited in their advertising: a quarto on the shelf would proclaim its owner's standing as a man of knowledge and a philosophe."

The title page of the Encyclopédie is shown on the right.

Booksellers' Auctions and Trade Dinner Sales

As the book trade became more sophisticated, a process was needed to move books from the wholesale into the retail market. Book auctions were a way to to sell books to booksellers. According to Shayler (1912, 247), these early auctioneers were often booksellers who didn't yet own their own store. The oldest firm is known as Sotheby. A catalogue was distributed and refreshments were often served during the proceedings.

During the 18th to early 19th century, dinners were often held for booksellers who might be interested in distributing particular works. According to Shaylor (1912, 169)

"From the year 1704 can be traced the old-fashioned trade sale catalogue which has always been the medium of offering books to the trade at special prices and which usually included an invitation to dinner... These catalogues were all of the same pattern, being printed on demy folio with broad margins for notes and annotations. They were usually addressed to 'A Select Number of Booksellers of London and Westminster', and on some appeared the many for the occasion."

A 1704 trade sale invitation read

"Beginning at nine in the morning when the whole company shall be entertained with a breakfast, and at noon with a good dinner and a glass of wine, and then proceed with the sale in order to finish that evening." (Shaylor, 1912, 249)

Shaylor notes that when publishing became separate from bookselling, trade sales became increasingly important as a way for publishers to connect with booksellers. Increasingly, authors and friends were invited to the events to increase the importance of the proceedings.

By the mid-19th century auctions continued, however they didn't involve dinner.

The image below shows a book auction from the mid 19th century.


Benjamin Franklin

benBenjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is a good example of the move from printer to publisher. He began as a printer. Then, seeing the need for content, he began writing.

He was also a bookseller. Ultimately he became a publisher. His Poor Richard's Almanack was profitable.

As a bookseller, he posted advertisements to attract customers.

In 1742, he posted an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette for ivory memorandum books.

The image on the right shows an advertisement.

John Newbery

baseballJohn Newbery (1713-1767) was an English author, publisher, and bookseller. He was the first to recognize the potential of marketing books written specifically for children and making this area profitable. About 1 in 5 of the 500 books he published were specifically for children.

Newbery's first work for children was A Little Pretty Pocket-Book in 1744. The book contained simple rhymes for each letter of the alphabet. It was a commercial success. He marketed the book for six pence, but the purchaser would also receive a ball or pincushion for an additional two pence. Newbery felt that children's good behavior could be enticed. He suggested that parents use a pin cushion to record good and bad behavior. A pin would be placed on the red side of the cushion for good behavior and a pin on the black side for bad behavior. In 1762, the book was republished in Colonial America.

The image on the right from A Little Pretty Pocket-Book shows the first reference to baseball in a book.

In 1765, Newbery published his most popular book, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. In addition to publishing, Newbery was also a merchant of other products. In another of his marketing schemes, he advertised Dr. Robert James's Fever Powder in an advertisement at the end of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. In the story, the heroine's father dies of a fever that could have been prevented with the fever powder.

Advertising in books became increasingly popular through the 19th century.

James Lackington

lackJames Lackington (1746-1815) published a memoir of his life as a bookseller titled Memoirs of the First Forty-Five Years of the Life of James Lackington (1792). Although much of the book deals with his thoughts on personal topics of interest, it provides an interesting exploration of the bookseller's life. Like many booksellers, Lackington's passion for books lead to his role as a bookseller.

The image on the right shows James Lackington.

Lackington (1792, 215-218) writes that

"(I) frequently added an old book to my small collection, and I really have often purchased book with the money that should have been expended in purchasing something to eat... Sometime in June 1774, as we sat at work in our room, Mr. Boyd... called and informed me that a little shop and parlour were to be let in Featherstone-street; adding, that if I was to take it, I might there get some work as a master. I without hesitation told him that I liked the idea, and hinted that I would sell books also. Mr. Boyd then asked me how I came to think of selling books? I informed him that until that moment it had never once entered into my thoughts; but that when he proposed my taking the shop, it instantaneously occurred to my mind, that for several months past I had observed a great increase in a certain old-book shop; and that I was persuaded I knew as much of old books as the person who kept it. I farther observed, that I loved books, and that if I could but be a bookseller, I should then have plenty of books to read, which was the greatest motive I could conceive o induce me to make the attempt."

Lackington began his bookshop with his private library and a few other books worth about five pounds. He borrowed another five pounds to purchase additional stock. Soon he outgrew his shop on Featherstone street and moved to another location.

Lackington (1792, 225) notes that

"as a tradesman increases in respectability and opulence, his opportunities of purchasing increase proportionably, and the more he buys and sells, the more he becomes a judge of the real value of his goods."

The image below shows the trading car of Lackington in front of his shop in Findbury Square in London in the late 1700s.


Catalogues were a primary marketing tool for booksellers during this time. In 1779, Lackington, along with a silent partner named John Denis, published a catalogue of twelve thousand volumes. They ran into a problem that customers continue to have today. In some cases, they described a book a "neat" when it was actually in "poor" condition. Their catalogue was also incomplete sometimes leaving out author names or other information. This upset some customers. Lackington (1792, 329-330) states that

"this our first publication produced very opposite effects on those who perused it; in some it excited much mirth, in others an equal proportion of anger... we however took twenty pounds the first week the books were on sale, which we thought was a large sum."

During this time, it was common for booksellers to take on debt to pay for stock. They would also offer credit to customers. Lackington decided to take a different approach. Rather than being restricted by what he owed or others owed him, he would try working on a cash basis. While some of this peers laughed at his plan, it was very effective. He states that

"(I) began by marking in every book the lowest price that I would take for it; which being much lower than the common market prices, I not only retained my former customers, but soon increased their number."

The image below shows a view of the Jones & Co bookselling premises begun by James Lackington.


Lackington also provides insights into the wholesale book business. Private sales were held by booksellers for booksellers. This was a way for booksellers to trade books they needed to get rid or acquire books they needed. These book sales required participants to destroy books before selling them for under their publication price. Lackington didn't like the idea of books being destroyed. He preferred to make them available at a deep discount. This practice made him enemies in the book trade and foreshadowed a debate in the next century about making books available cheap to the general public.

Lackington felt strongly that the poor should be able to purchase books.

"Thousands of others have been effectually prevented from purchasing (though anxious so to do) whose circumstances in life would not permit them to pay the full price, and thus were totally excluded from the advantage of improving their understandings, and enjoying a rational entertainment. And you may be assured, that it affords me the most pleading satisfaction, independent of emoluments which have accused to me from this plan, when I reflect what prodigious numbers in inferior or reduced situations of life, have been essentially benefited in consequence of being thus enable to indulge their natural propensity for the acquisition of knowledge, on easy terms: nay, I could almost be vain enough to assert, that I have thereby been highly instrumental in diffusing that general desire for READING, now so prevalent among the inferior orders of society."

Lackington was upset when people accused publishers of making too much money on the intellectual property created by others. He pointed out the high cost of printing, paper, advertising, and other investments required by publishers. In addition, he stressed that publishers experience losses from many of their investments in books. Also, authors have expectations from their works that are too high and not realistic.

If you'd like to explore more of Lackington's experiences, skim his Memoirs of the First Forty-Five Years of the Life of James Lackington. The second half of the book deals with his experiences as a bookseller and is very interesting to read.

Robert Dodsley

dodsleyRobert Dodsley (1704-1764) was a English author, publisher, and bookseller. His collection of correspondence includes letters exchanged between himself and authors, book trade peers, and friends including Thomas Gray, David Hume, and Samuel Johnson.

His correspondence provides insights into negotiations with authors and publishers as well as the technical and financial aspects of the book trade during the 18th century.

James Tierney (2003) edited and published this correspondence.


Parson Mason Locke Weems

weemsAccording to (Wroth, 1911, 7), Parson Mason Locks Weems was a wonderful example of a late 18th and early 19th century American author and bookseller.

"For thirty years there was no more familiar figure on the roads of the Southern States than this book peddler and author who, provided gipsy-like with horse and wagon, his wares and his fiddle, travelled his long route year after year, sleeping in wayside inn, farmhouse or forest, fiddling, writing, selling books, living in the open and learning some new road lore, field lore or wisdom of the wood with each day that passed."

Weems was known as an "inaccurate biographer, an extravagant preacher of morals and a saucy fellow who was sometimes inexcusably vulgar in thought or expression" (1911, 57). Although he was best known for originating the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, he also sold Bibles, hymn books, prayer books, and books related to philosophy, history, and biography. In was known to be very persuasive and was successful at securing subscriptions to multiple volume editions.

Longman Family

The Thomas Longman (1699-1755) family is a great example of a publishing dynasty. After serving as an apprentice, he entered a publishing partnership with his father-in-law and purchased a bookshop owned by John Taylor in Paternoster Row. His nephew and sons continued the business. The tradition continued with the fourth and fifth generations. The business became a public company in 1948 and continues to exist today.

To learn more about this family, read The Longman Family in A History of Booksellers, The Old and the New by Henry Curwen (1873).

The Margins of the Literary Scene

Although many books were written for and sold to the upper cases, the lower and middle classes were also involved in the literary scene.

The image below left shows an old blind man guided by a young boy. The image by Paul Sandby was published in London in 1760. The image below right shows Grub Street.

blindgrub street

The term Grub Street refers to both a specific location as well as a type of writer.

As a location, Grub Street was located near Moorfields in London. During the 18th century, it was located in a poor area where hack writers and low-end publishers and booksellers resided.

Although it was on the margin of the literary scene, it was the place that many books were written and published.

Since the early 19th century, the term Grub Street has been used to describe people who wrote low quality pamphlets or books for hire.



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