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Books as a Commodity: 19th Century

bookstoreThe book publishing industry grew throughout the nineteenth century. The dramatic increase in literacy in America along with the growth in libraries and public schools provided a rapidly growing market for books. In addition, the introduction of technological advances allowed more volume at less cost. However the overall quality of published works remained high.

During the 19th century, big publishing firms emerged. Some of these companies remain active in the industry today. Publishing and marketing were becoming a global endeavor.

The image on the right shows the Bible Warehouse and Theological and Miscellaneous Bookstore known as Lincoln & Edmands, Printers & Booksellers.

In the 19th century practices of paying authors began to standardize. Publishers paid a percentage based on the price of the book and number of books sold. In some cases, authors received nothing until a specific number of copies were sold.

Wholesale Bookseller

The roles of publisher and bookseller became distinct during this century. While publishers were involved in the acquisition, printing, and distribution of books, booksellers were involved in wholesale or retail sales. The wholesale bookseller became more prevalent. This person worked with publishers and retail bookshop owners to help move product from the publisher to the seller.

British Publishing and Sales

During the Victorian period, the communication industry including publishing and printing of books "accelerated the processes of economic, social and cultural change by dramatically increasing the volume and speed of which information, news and entertainment flowed through society." (Eliot, 2013)

The Publishers' Circular was a major trade journal providing statistics about sales. Book production rose throughout the 19th century. Bibliotheca Londinensis shows that between 1814 and 1846 fiction and juvenile works accounted for over thirty percent of the book market. Bent's Monthly Literary Advertiser classified most books published up to 1825 as "expensive." Medium priced books dominated from 1835-1845 and by 1855 inexpensive books were the largest category. (Eliot, 2013)

French Publishing and Sales

In France, a licensing system was established for booksellers in 1810. Potential booksellers were required to submit an application to the local mayor including personal and professional references. Those receiving a license (brevet) were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the regime. It was hoped that this approach would ensure that new bookstores would refrain from selling rebellious materials. This licensing system remained in effect until 1870. Despite the strict controls on the book trade, new products were developed.

Haynes (2010) stresses that during this period publishers advocated for commercial freedom, demonstrated the importance of networking among businessmen, and liberalized the literacy market.

According to Haynes (2010, 4),

"between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries, the literary marketplace was certainly shaped by the growth of the reading public, a rise in consumption, the development of new sources and forms of credit, the mechanization of papermaking and printing, the invention of stereotypography and lithography, the spread of the railroad, and the institution of mass education."

Educational Booksellers

Compulsory education and the growth of schooling in Europe generated a need for standardized texts for children. The market for school books, textbooks, and other educational materials gained momentum in the 19th century.

Julius Klinkhardt began as a bookseller in Germany in 1834 and built a published company that employed over 400 people by 1882. Specializing in school books and textbooks, the company supervised all aspects of book production and distribution. The company still exists today.

The images below show textbooks from the early 19th century. The image below left is the title page to Mathematics (1801). The image below middle is the title page to An Introduction to the Study of Political Economy (1811). The image below eight is the title page to Medical Inquiries.



Book Auctions

Book auctions were common during the 19th century. The book One Hundred Years of Book Auctions, 1807-1907, describes the book auction firm of Hodgson and Co. in London. Their first auction was held in 1807 at the "Upper Ship Inn". The sales were announced in the newspaper. A catalogue was produced to describe the items for sale. The sale was described as a

"Most Valuable and Select Library of Books, the principal part of which are in superb Bindings, and forming in the whole, one of the most choice and elegant Collections ever submitted to Public Sale." (13)

In many cases the sales were based on personal collections. When Edmunch Hodgson took over the company in the 1830s, he established connections with the publishing trade and held what were known as "trade-sales." These trade-sales were often attended by invitation-only. In many cases the books weren't sold in a traditional auction format, instead they were offered at reduced prices. For instance, he coordinated a sale of the

"entire copyrights and stock of the novels and poems of Sir Walter Scott, together with the Life of Lockhart, and event which is said to have brought together the largest trade gathering that has ever been witnessed." (19)

From 1840 to 1890, the company primarily focused on the sale of publishers' stocks, copyrights, and remainders. However in 1890s the focus shifted to rare and valuable books.

The images below show the Hodgson and Co. auction house (below left) and the auction room (right).


Publishers, Booksellers and Pricing

In the 1850s, booksellers in London began to organize and discuss issues related to pricing and trade. According to the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica,

"in July 1850 twelve hundred bookseller within 12 m. of the London General Post Office signed a stringent agreement not to sell below a certain price. This agreement was broken almost immediately. Another attempt was made in 1852; but at a meeting of distinguished men of letters resolutions were adopted declaring that the principles of the Bookseller's Association of that period were opposed to free trade, and were tyrannical and vexatious in their operations."

Repeated attempts to control retail pricing failed.

try itTry It!
Read Publishers and the Public from The Times of 1852.
Also, read the note written in 1906 and the associated editorials.

Society Publications

antislaveryDuring the 19th century, societies sprang up around interests and causes. From the temperance movement to anti-slavery leagues, these reform movements used publishing as a way to get the word out to their audience.

The American Anti-Slavery Society is an excellent example. They published a wide range of publications including periodicals, pamphlets, and books during the first half of the 19th century. According to Teresa Goddu (2009), the society kept careful records of printing and distribution information. They used low cost printing, paper, and postage options. Unlike other books that were sold through distributors and booksellers, books like the Antislavery Almanac were sent directly through the mail.

Goddu (2009) notes that the anti-slavery movement as well as the society at large was obsessed with number. The movement embraced the emerging market economy. They "no only produced a new knowledge system through numeracy, solidifying slavery as a social fact, but also regulated and institutionalized that knowledge by systematizing its modes of dissemination... The antislavery almanac "leveraged the discourse of numeracy to asset antislavery as both credible and culturally acceptable." (Goddu, 2009, 130).

try itTry It!
Explore a copy of The American Anti-Slavery Almanac. Compare different years such as 1836, 1837, 1838, 1839, 1840, 1840NY, 1842, 1843, 1844, 1846, 1847.
Notice how anti-slavery information is woven into the almanac along with regular almanac information.

Skim Goddu, Teresa A. (2009). The antislavery almanac and the discourse of numeracy. Book History, 12, 129-155. IUPUI students can view the article online. Think about other societies who used this type of strategy to communicate with their audience.

Author Sales and Tours

mark trainIn some cases, authors sought out publishers to produce and distribute their work.

Mark Twain was an effective salesman in addition to being an excellent writer. Huckleberry Finn (1884) was published as a subscription book. When it was banned by the Concord Library Committee as "veriest trash", Twain saw this criticism as an opportunity to sell more books. He went on a book tour talking about his book and reading excerpts at cities across the United States. Readers liked to know about the authors and their personalities. (Garner, 2009)

The image on the right shows a sales flier for Huckleberry Finn.

Unlike Twain, most authors weren't as successful with their publications or their tours.

George Catlin (1796-1872) was a self-taught American artist. In 1830 he embarked on an expedition to record the customs and history of the American Indian. Working with a publisher in London, he published a book titled Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians in 1841 and Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio in 1848.

As a showman, Catlin created a traveling exhibition of Indian artifacts that traveled throughout the United States and Europe. Although popular with the public, it wasn't as lucrative as he'd hoped.

The images below from the New York Public Library show the book North American Indians by Catlin.


Antebellum Period and Reprinting

During the 1830s through the 1840s, the literary market in the United States exploded. Much of this expansion came from copying and selling foreign works. Because the copyright law in the United States didn't protect foreign rights, many of these books were reprinted without payment to the author or original publisher. Although this could be viewed as piracy, it was perfectly legal at the time. McGill (2007, 4) notes that

"although there was substantial domestic opposition to the culture of reprinting, particularly as the literary nationalist movement gained strength and prominence in the early 1840s, American defenders of the reprint trade wielded considerable political power, holding off an international copyright agreement until late in the nineteenth century."

According to McGill (2007) the national market for books was spread out over the major cities including Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Cheap, reprinted British books were distributed without authorial or editorial control. In many cases, books were chopped into pieces and published as a series of articles in magazines or by mail in a looseleaf format. McGill (2007, 2) notes that

"the proliferation of cheap, reprinted texts and the reliance of the book trade on periodical publishing realigned relations between author, publisher, editor, and reader, upended the hierarchy of genres, and troubled the boundaries of the text-as-object."

The image below shows the Appleton's Book Store in New York in 1856.


The Three-Volume Novel and Lending Libraries

mudieIn the 19th century, the three-volume novel, also known as the three-deckers or triple decker, became a standard publishing form for British fiction. Unlike today's novel trilogy, the three-volume novel is simply a novel divided into three parts to increase the demand and profit. Each volume was about 300 pages, so the three-volume novel was around 900 pages. About two-thirds of the novels produced during this time were originally published in three volumes.

Charles Edward Mudie (1818-1890) was an English publisher and founder of Mudie's Lending Library and Mudie's Subscription Library. Although most middle-class English readers couldn't afford to purchase a novel, they would "check-out" these works from lending or subscription libraries. This rise in popularity of the three-volume can be attributed to Mudie who could profit by checking out the novel in three parts.

The image on the left shows women outside Mudie's lending library.

Shaylor, Joseph (1912, 27-28) notes that during the time of the three-volume novel,

"a curious arrange in the distribution of this class of literature was in force. The publishers only issued their novels in 'quires'; that is, in sheets unbound. These were sold to the 'Novel' distributor, who bound them and re-sold them to the various libraries."

Soon, publishers began to bind the novels themselves in cloth. The form disappeared in 1894.

Read The Three-Volume Novel from the New York Times, October 18, 1896. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Book Salesmen in the United States

Like the coloporteur of Europe during earlier centuries, literature peddlers were popular in the United States in the 19th century. Sometimes called book agents, these salesman were often young adults trying to make a living.

Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832-1899) was an American author known for his juvenile novels. He often wrote "rags to riches" stories stressing that anyone could escape poverty through hard work. His book The Young Book Agent, or, Frank Hardy's Road to Success published in 1905 is a great example. Although written by the Edward Stratemeyer syndicate, it reflects the types of book Alger wrote.

The image below shows the title page to The Young Book Agent, or, Frank Hardy's Road to Success.

book agent

try itTry It!
Read the Preface, then skim The Young Book Agent, or, Frank Hardy's Road to Success (1905). This juvenile novel provides a look at the job of book agent during the late 19th and early 20th century. Do you think this story is accurate? Why or why not?
Skim Confessions of a Book Agent by J.H. Mortimer (1906). This book is written for adults and explores the life of a book salesman.

Skim Six Years Experience as a Book Agent (1874). This explores a women's experience as a book agent.

Religious organizations such as the American Tract Society and the American Bible Society encouraged the distribution of religious literature particularly during the American Civil War. The Superintendent of the Soldiers' Tract Society stated "If any man among us can look back with pleasure on this labors in the army, it is the Christian colporter." (Jones, 1887, 156).

In Christ in the Camp (1887, 148), a chapter titled Bible and Colportage Work described how traveling peddlers supplied religious literature during the Civil War. When the war began, most publishing houses were located in the North.

"The world's history has never presented a wider field of usefulness to the humble colporter who tries to do his duty than the camps and hospitals of the Confederate armies, and rarely have Christian workers more fully improved their golden opportunities."

prayersBibles were in high demand. A letter from Army Evangelist Jones stated

"There is a general demand in the army for small Bibles. I have daily applications from soldiers so eager to get them that they frequently say they will give several months' wages for one. But the supply at all of the depositories and book-stores has long since been exhausted and there seems little prospect of replenishment." (Jones, 1887, 154)

Books were considered contraband and not allowed to be shipped to the South. In 1861, the first Confederate Bible was printed by Southwestern Publishing House in Nashville. Upon receiving his copy, President Jefferson Davis stated

"The Bible is a beautiful specimen of Southern workmanship, and if I live to be inaugurated the first President of the Confederacy, on the 22d of February, my lips shall press the sacred volume which your kindness has bestowed upon me." (Jones, 1887, 148)

The image on the right shows an example of the type of publication that would have been sold by colporters in the South.

Scientific Publishing

scienceThe 19th century was a particularly interesting time in scientific publishing. According to Howsam (2000),

"a close examination of the publishing history of scientific books can be particularly fruitful for the scholar interested in how text and physical object combined to constitute the reader's experience at a given place and moment in time."

The image on the left shows the cover of The International Scientific Series (1896).

As an example, Howsam (2000) focused on the International Scientific Series (ISS). The red covers provided recognizable packaging. Buyers could be assured of a quality product. These books provide insights into both book publishing as well as science of the period. Howsam (2000, 189) noted that the selection of titles provides evidence of the contemporary definitions of science.


Books for the Masses

dimeAs the cost of publication reduced, booksellers began marketing cheap books to the masses. According to Lommen (2012, 11),

"in the hand-press period, up to about 1830, most books were accessible only to the elite.... The nineteenth century saw affordable books with a luxurious appearance come on the market thanks to the mechanization of printing and a growing reading public."

George Routledge (1812-1888) began as a bookseller in 1836 and founded a British publishing house in 1843. His first publications were reprints of Biblical commentaries. He published inexpensive volumes of works such as those by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper known as the Railway Library. This series of books cost a shilling a volume. In the 1850s he began publishing beautifully illustrated children's books.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, a new wave of publishers emerged including George Munro, Ormond Smith, and Irwin and Erastus Beadle. These newcomers were more interested in profit than quality or moral influence. Their books were poorly laid out and printed on inexpensive newsprint. These cheap publications known as "dime novel" grew in popularity.

The image on the right shows a Dime Novel published in 1860.

Quantity vs Quality

blackDuring the second half of the 19th century, two types of publishers emerged.

Some publishers preferred to think of books as valued intellectual property and valued works of art.

Others used advertising and cheap production costs to sell large numbers of books. They viewed books as any other commodity to be sold in high volume.

The penny dreadful also known as penny horrible, penny number, and penny awful was a type of cheap British fiction. Generally covering serials stories, the books cost one penny. Aimed at working class young adults, the term penny dreadful became associated with a wide range of cheap fiction.

The image on the right shows one of the cheap "penny dreadful" books.

According to Travis (1999),

"our will to see the modern book as separate from the world of commodities result from the larger transition from an artisanal to an industrial media environment. Like journalism and electronic communications, the book industry participated in the shift into what we can loosely term the culture-industrial mode of production that began, in the U.S., in the late-19th century. Unlike their confreres at newspapers and magazines, and later in radio, cinema, and television, however, book industry workers retained–even cultivated–a curiously anti-modern attitude towards the world around them. This attitude centered on the nature of books and their attendant place in culture. Even as they tried to modernize the production and distribution of books, book men (as they liked to call themselves) strove valiantly to disregard and disavow the book’s identity as a product, as a commodity. They worked instead to present books to the public as objects immune to the commodification that hallmarked the times."

These "book men" of the late 19th century preferred to think of books as a non-commodity. They wished to elevate the book above other goods. Originally trade books were sold through printers and stationers. However this shifted to specialty shops then department stores. Some book men didn't like being caught up in this consumer revolution. They viewed department stores as a place that sold cheap books below retail price.

Travis (1999) noted that

"faced, then, with the prospect that their precious books would be piled haphazardly on tables alongside muslin underwear and four-button gloves, book men needed to find a discursive way to distinguish their goods from the world of commodities around them. One way that they did this was to shun one key aspect of the world of modern goods, namely, the advertising of them. While all around them national ad campaigns transformed the profitability of household items and reshaped the communications media that relied on advertising, trade publishers remained relatively faithful to the traditional forms of genteel advertising they had used since the antebellum period... as the media environment around them became increasingly commodified, book men emphasized the residual aspects of artisanal manufacture in book production and distribution–to distinguish books from other, commercial, media. "

Travis (1999) concludes that

"we don’t often think about the publishing industry as anything other than a selection and distribution network for books. But these examples, which can be multiplied dozens of times over, suggest that the industry’s role in framing our idea of books is in fact pronounced, if easy to overlook. The tenacious anti-commodity discourse coming from the book industry itself, I would argue, working hand in hand with the educational trends I described earlier, shapes our "natural" disinclination to think of books as goods."

In the late 19th century, men like John Ruskin and William Morris were leading a movements that encouraged the upper-class to shun inexpensive books and instead purchase "high quality" books printed with traditional hand presses on high quality paper in small runs.

The image below shows The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer printed by William Morris at Kelscott Press.


In 1899, American economist Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class discussed social-class consumerism and the rise of the leisure class. He described the concept of conspicuous consumption noting that higher social status is reflected in the desire for increasingly costly consumer goods. Increased leisure time of the affluent leads to spending more time in pursuits such as intellectual activities like reading that lead to even higher social status.

Veblen used books as an example. He noted that high-quality, machine-made books had become inexpensive and accessible to all social classes. As such, the elite classes began to value hand-made goods. He specifically named Ruskin and Morris as "eager spokesmen" for this movement spreading "propaganda" for the return to handicraft. Veblen states,

"the manner in which the bias of this growth of taste has worked itself out in production is perhaps most cogently exemplified in the book manufacture with which Morris busied himself during the late years of his life... the claims to excellence put forward by the later products of the book-maker's industry rest in some measure on the degree of its approximation to the crudities of the time when work of book-making was a doubtful struggle with refractory materials carried on by means of insufficient appliances. These products, since they require hand labour, are more expensive... the printers of to-day are returning to "old style" and other more or less obsolete styles of type which are less legible and give a cruder appearance to the page than the "modern"... The Kelmscott Press reduced the matter to an absurdity - as seen from the point of view of brute serviceability alone - by issuing books for modern use, edited with the obsolete spellings, printed in black-letter, and bound in limp vellum fitted with thongs. As a further characteristic feature which fixed the economic place of artistic bookmaking, there is the fact that these more elegant books are, at their best, printed in limited editions. A limited edition is in effect a guarantee - somewhat crude, it is true - that this book is scare and that it therefore is costly and lends pecuniary distinction to its consumer" (Veblen, 1899, 163-164). Consider reading the entire section online and think about how the ebook would be interpreted by Veblen.

The Profession of Bookselling

bookcasesIn 1893, Adolf Growoll (1893, vii) published The Profession of Bookselling. In the forward to the book, he noted that booksellers

"might well take a lesson from their co-workers, the librarians, who, in the first place, by associating themselves together and holding annual meetings to exchange notes and opinions, have given and received a stimulus that has carried their profession to the very front rank; and who, in the second place, by availing themselves of their organ, the Library Journal, to convey to one another their opinion, and the result of their practice and experience in the various branches of their work, are performing a service for their profession that is of the greatest possible value. Who will say that this is not within the range of our profession?"

Growoll provides chapters on topics such as preparatory training, entering the profession, literature, in the store, arrangement of stock, etc.

The image on the right shows a suggested way to organize books for sale.

In London, booksellers' society was established in 1890. Later it became The Associated Booksellers of Great Britain and Ireland. In the United States and Canada, the industry organized was formed in 1900 and is known as the American Booksellers Association (ABA).

The Publisher's Association was established in 1896. One of their first activities was to attempt to control retail pricing. While this failed in the mid 1800s, it was more successful when attempted in 1900.

The Global Book Market

By the end of the 19th century, books were being marketed worldwide. Although copyright issues still existed in some countries including the United States, many booksellers recognized the global audience for books.

According to Jyrki Hakapaa (2002),

"The ability to overcome limits on communication, to transmit and receive enormous amounts of information across the globe, may be the most distinctive mark of contemporary globalized world... World-system and civilizational studies show the early and complex development of different global patterns within more restricted areas."

Hakapaa (2002) explored internationalizing book distribution in the early nineteenth century in Finland. He found the "European nation-states created new possibilities for communication by increasing levels of literacy across class lines."

To learn more, skim Hakappa, Jyrki (2002). Internationalizing book distribution in the early nineteenth century: the origins of Finnish bookstores. Book History, 5, 39-66. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Edward Petherick (1847-1917) was an Australian book collector. After working as a bookseller and buyer, he recognized the need for a global perspective on bookselling. In 1887, he established the Colonial Booksellers' Agency. Although the company went bankrupt in 1894, his work laid the foundation for international bookseller cooperation.

To learn more, skim Rukavina, Alison (2010). A Victorian Edward Petherick and his Colonial bookseller's agency. Book History, 13, 104-121. IUPUI students can view the article online.

As the book market became more global, there was interest in translated materials. For instance, the works are Jules Verne were translated into English and the works of Mark Twain were translated into French.

To learn more, skim Jenn, Ronald (2006), From American frontier to European borders: publishing French translations of Mark Twain's novels Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (1884-1963). Book History, 9, 235-260. IUPUI students can view the article online.

The image below shows the Adventures of Huckleberry Inn by Mark Twain. On the left is the English version and on the right is the French version.



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