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Books as a Commodity : 20-21st Century

bookmanIn the late 19th and early 20th century, booksellers became increasingly involved with their profession. This is reflected in their trade journals such as The Bookman. To gain insights into the profession of a bookseller during this time, it's useful to explore their professional journal, The Bookman. This journal began publishing bestseller lists based on sales from a sample of booksellers in the British Isles. In addition to being useful for booksellers, these lists are also useful for book historians.

The image on the right shows an image from The Bookman, 1909.

According to Bassett and Walter (2001),

"'Sales of Books During the Month' shows the demands of customers as perceived by a number of booksellers from around the British Isles, and in the aggregate, they can be used to approximate national sales of books (that is, the 'bestsellers'). In addition, as representations of individual bookshops, the lists reflect both local and regional differences within the book market... The 'Monthly Report on the Wholesale Book Trade,' by contrast, records the demands of bookshops - that is, what shops are stocking. Because these reports represent shop orders in response to sales, they illustrate longer trends better than do the sales reflected in the bookshop lists."

Based on the data from The Bookman sales data, Bassett and Walter concluded that titles appearing on the top sales list often sold well over only a short period, books appearing on the wholesale list sold moderately well over a long period, and those books appearing on both lists sold well over a long period of time. They conclude that although some titles do well in the short or long run, "the shelf life of most bestsellers is not long." (Bassett & Walter, 2001, 227)

try itTry It!
Explore an issue of The Bookman such as one from September 1908-February 1909 (Volume XXVIII). What topics were covered? What was of interest and concerns to booksellers during this time?

Book Advertising

An essential aspect of a publisher's business involves connecting books with their audience. Advertising is essential. In Read Me, Garner (2009, 3) notes that "Great books, like every other kind of book, are new only once, and for a only a short time."

Around the turn of the century, book advertising "was approaching something like its modern form. The century's earliest book ads were generally straightforward, leaning on typography more than on other design elements" (Garner, 2009, 12). Photographs of writers became common in book advertisements in the 1920s.

carsonBecause each book is a unique product, it wasn't possible for publishers to advertise like soap or automobiles. Publishers began to "brand" their most popular authors.

By the 1930s, critics were increasingly quoted in book advertisements. According to Garner (2009, 15), a May 7, 1939 advertisement for John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath included review excerpts of "Clifton Faiman, Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, and Louis Kronenberger, among others."

During the 1940s, book ads became "busier" including sketches, quotes, comparisons, and descriptions.

Increasingly, advertising firms took over marketing efforts for the major publishers.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is an example of a book that used quotes from scientists praising her book. The Book-of-the-Month Club edition of Silent Spring included a report by Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas praising the book (image shown on left).

Book of the Month Clubs

Book clubs grew in popularity beginning in the late 1800s. For instance, the Grolier Club was founded in the 1880s.

The First Edition Club is another example. George Macy founded the Limited Editions Club (LEC) in 1929. A limited number of around 1500 copies of an illustrated book was published for subscribers. This club was designed for American book collectors. Generally the literary classics were machine made on a fine press with beautiful illustrations. In 1935, the LEC became the Heritage Club publishing more affordable, unlimited editions of great books. Books included The Grapes of Wrath, Call of the Wild and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

try itTry It!
Explore the Bibliographic Catalogue of the First Loan Exhibition of Books and Manuscripts Held by the First Edition Club (1922). Would this be a club you would consider? Why or why note?

letterThe Book of the Month Club was established in 1926 in the United States. This mail-order book club offered a new book each month to its customers. The membership involved a negative response system. In other words, a book was shipped each month on a particular day unless a particular selection was declined before a specific date. The club was intended to promote book to the general public. The company merged with Doubleday in 2000 and a new company called Bookspan was formed. The new company concludes many book clubs include the Children's Book-of-the-Month Club, Doubleday Book Club, The Good Cook, Science Fiction Book Club and Scientific American Book Club.

The image on the right shows a letter from Evan Thomas of Harper and Brothers Publishing to John F. Kennedy informing him of the intention to name Profiles in Courage Book of the Month. Click to read the letter.

Miller (2008, 7) noted that

"When the Book-of-the-Month Club formed in the 1920, bookstores not only feared the new competition, but detractors warned that this innovation would result in literary standardization as consumers allowed the club to dictate their choice of reading material. Similar to the chain stores of today, the Book-of-the-Month Club and its imitators were feared because of their price-cutting practices, because of the preferential treatment they received from publishers, and because of their national reach and, thus, the cultural power they might wield."

In 1947, Robert Maynard Hutchins introduced a nonprofit foundation to encourage life-long learning through reading and discussing what became known as Great Books. The program was expanded in 1962 to include Junior Great Books. The program continues today.

Reprinting the Classics

leobFrom the Everyman's Library to the Modern Library, many publishers had a reprinting division during the 20th century.

The Loeb Classical Library was a series of books published by Harvard University Press. Focusing on important Greek and Latin literature, the books were intended to the broad public. Intended for amateur readers, the books contained the Greek or Latin text on the left-hand side of the page and the translation on the right facing page. The first volumes were published in 1912 with green covers for Greek and red covers for Latin.

The Everyman's Library is a series of reprinted classic literature published by Random House today. In 1906, J.M. Dent and Company began publishing affordable reprints for classics for readers across classes. These pocket-sized hardcover books were inexpensive. In the United States, E.P. Dutton held the original distribution rights. An honorary editorial committee helps to select the books.


The image above left is from the Everyman's Library. The image above right is from the Modern Library.

The Modern Library is an American publishing company founded in 1917. Random House is now the parent company. Originally, the Modern Library was published exclusive as hardcover books. In 1950, the Modern Library College Editions were produced in paperback. Their goal was to reprint the world's best books.

Other publishers also have reprint divisions including Oxford World's Classics and Penguin Classics.

To learn more about the Modern Library, go to Platt, Daniel (2012). An icon adrift: the Modern Library in the 1990s. Book History, 15, 183-209. The Modern Library was founded in 1917 to provide working-class people with access to classics. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Medical Publishing

Each genre has its own publishing history. Let's explore medical publishing as a example.

Skim Connor, Jennifer J. (2009). Stalwart giants: medical cosmopolitanism, Canadian authorship, and American publishers. Book History, 12, 209-239. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Incorporation and Book Publishing

The book publishing world was slow to adopt economic strategies of corporate America such as large-scale production, marketing, and advertising. The profession of book publishing arose from the need of authors and booksellers to make and sell books.

"The world of publishing has a long tradition of being production rather than consumption based. Even if not always borne out in practice, the theory that the process of publishing was driven by the author rather than the reader, or even the publisher, and that the book was a vessel which publishers created to hold an author's ideas and words so that they could be passed on to readers for safekeeping continued to hold great sway over publishers long after other American industries had fully embraced incorporation." (Becnel, 2012)

According to Becnel (2012),

"the new capacity for putting out cheap, ephemeral books and the idea of books as utilitarian objects reinforced one another and together made possible the success of the new mode of production in the publishing world, one driven by publishers and readers rather than authors. Of course, this new idea coexisted with the long-held tradition of publishing what publishers and editors perceived as original and worthy pieces of literature in fine editions, a coexistence which could prove both competitive and complementary at various times and which certainly helped to expand the bounds of the literary terrain in America."

University Presses

A university press is an academic publishing house. These nonprofit publishers are generally affiliated with a large research institution and publish scholarly works. Although found around the global, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press are the oldest university presses.

University presses emerged in the United States in the late 19th century. The largest press in the United States is the University of Chicago Press. The Association of American University Presses (AAUP) currently has 125 members. Many American University Presses specialize in particular subject areas.

"Because they are a part of the academy, not publishers for the academy, university presses remain, as a class, the most prestigious and professionally recognized disseminators of scholarship. They uphold higher standards for selection, give greater emphasis to editorial excellence than to the bottom line, and, as nonprofits, are tax-exempt." (Meisel, 2010, 123)

For a list of university presses, go to Wikipedia.

Skim Meisel, Joseph S. (2010). American university presses, 1929-1979: adaptation and evolution. Book History, 13, 122-153. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Skim Davis, Caroline (2005). The politics of postcolonial publishing: Oxford University Press's Three Crowns Series, 1962-1976. Book History, 8, 227-244. IUPUI students can view the article online.

The Erotica Book Trade

The erotic book trade existing in the shadows of book publishing since the beginning.

In Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940 (2001), Jay Gertzman notes that between World War I and II the erotic literature book trade in America flourished. A time of sexual repression and sexual curiosity, both pornographic materials and sexually explicit fiction books were popular. Gertzman notes a symbiotic relationship between the erotica book publishers and the moralists who attacked them.

Wars and Publishing

American book publishers decided to sell the military cheap paperback to be distributed around the world during World War II (Appelbaum, 2014). The Council on Books in Wartime distributed Armed Services Editions (ASEs). Their slogan was "books are weapons in the war of ideas." The books were designed to fit in a cargo pocket ranging from 5½" to 6½" long and from 3?" to 4½" high.

The publishers chose to send valuable titles rather than the cheap pulp titles often sent to war. Books included classics, biographies, drama, poetry, genre fiction, and best sellers. The result was a built-in market after the war. These veterans continued to seek out quality literature.

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Book Design and Marketing

During the 20th century, publishers sought a variety of approaches to market books including book design considerations.

Robert Franciosi (2008) explored the challenges of marketing a book about the Holocaust in his article Designing John Hersey's The Wall. Alfred Knopf was committed to producing quality, attractive volumes. John Hersey (1914-1993) was a Pulitzer Prize winning American author who was committed to quality non-fiction storytelling. Francisosi (2008, 248) wrote

"A work of great size and ambition, The Wall posed a formidable and unprecedented challenge to Hersey's publisher - how to present and market a novel whose very subject, despite acts of heroic resistance, is ultimately a story of mass death, a story American audiences were particularly ill-prepared to face, no just in 1950 but over the ensuing decades."

The images below show the cover design (left) and jacket design (right) for The Wall by John Hersey.


The production staff at Knopf felt that the layout and design of the book was the key to marketing. "Alfred Knopf and W. A. Dwiggins (designer) shared a vision of the mass-produced book and how it should attend to its readers' aesthetic and economic needs... both men saw the cloth cover as the lasting face the book would carry to future generations of readers." (Franciosi, 2008, 255).

To learn more about how this book was designed, skim Franciosi, Robert (2008). Designing John Hersey's The Wall: W.A. Dwiggins, George Salter, and the challenges of American Holocaust Memory. Book History, 11, 245-274. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Alternative Press

whole earthDuring the 1960s and 1970s, small, politically progressive publishers became known for distributing books and other materials focusing on specific social issues.

Publishing outside the multinational corporations that dominated publishing, these publishers also explored innovative and experimental works.

Although ignored by the mainstream press, some of the books gained widespread attention.

For instance, Whole Earth (shown right) gained particular notoriety as an American counterculture catalog published beginning in the late 1960s.

Some of the materials created by these alternative press were comic books and early forms of graphic novels.

Independent vs Chain Stores

backDuring the 20th century, bookstores shifted from local independent bookshops to large chain stores such as Barnes and Noble. An increasing market for second-hand books led to an increasing number of used book stores in the 20th century. These stores often trade in both used and out-of-print books.

Faced with competition from both chain stores and online sales, independent book stores have launched campaigns to generate awareness of their role in book sales. In 2008, the American Booksellers Association launched the website IndieBound to compete with chains and online stores.

The image on the right shows the independent book store Back of Beyond Books in Moab Utah.

Laura J. Miller (2008) in Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption explores a century of book retailing. Miller stresses that booksellers are perceived as much more than salesmen. She noted that in the 1960s department store began carrying books and superstores carried them in the 1990s. Miller (2008, 4) states that during the "last four decades of the twentieth century, economic, technological, and cultural changes finally pushed the book trade to become more rationalized, that is, to calculate the most efficient means to sell books and then develop the organizational forms and procedures necessary to that task."

While independent bookstores have accused chains of monopolist behavior and unfair competition practices, chains' corporate owners emphasize that their actions are simply about good economic practice. According Miller (2008, 4),

"the hostility to the superstores, as well as their smaller, mall-based predecessors, struck some observers as rather curious considering that the chains were in many ways answering criticisms hat had been leveled at booksellers for years. for most of the previous century, book professionals had despaired over the archaic and inefficient systems in place for joining a book with the individual who might want to read it. Many bemoaned the small number of outlets for the purchase of books, the lengthy delays in the delivery of books from publisher to retailer, lackadaisical attributes on the part of booksellers, ignorance of the book-buying market, and the inability of stores to stock the books customers wanted when they wanted them. Consistently, there were calls for the entire book distribution system to get itself more in step with contemporary business practices."

The photo below shows a bookshop in Pereslavl-Zalessky, Russia from 1959.


Today, larger stores may exceed half a million titles.

Physical to Virtual Stores

kindleDuring the early part of the 21st century, booksales shifted from brick-and-mortar stores to web-based stores such as Amazon.

The image on the right shows an Amazon Kindle.

In eBooks: Has Amazon Turned eBooks into Commodities?, Rich Adin (2012) suggests that access to broad choices available in the eBook market has shifted the buyer from a focus on authors to an emphasis on genre and pricing. He states that

"For a long time, publishers and readers have argued that each book is unique and thus one cannot substitute, say, a book by Dean Koontz for one by Stephen King. For years I accepted that — until ebooks and agency pricing and Amazon exclusivity. Now, in the case of fiction at least, I think the tides have turned and ebooks demonstrate books and authors are substitutable, that is, (fiction) books are commodities."

Adin concludes that commoditization is good because a wider range of authors are being discovered, however it's bad for publishers, authors, and readers because it may be increasingly difficult to find the quality authors and works. He stressed that a balance is needed.

The Book as Commodity in the 21st Century

Not only has the physical form of the book changed, but also how consumers think about and read books. From digital downloads to online book clubs, how people purchase, borrow, and share books has changed with the introduction of the electronic book.

On the other hand, the addition of electronic books hasn't reduced interest in print materials. Milliot (2014) reports that hardback and paperback books are still outselling electronic books. He notes that paperbacks remained the most popular (42% share), next hardcover (25% share), and finally e-books (23% share).

Librarians have had a particularly difficult time in dealing with the business side of e-books. Many publishers have been reluctant to work with libraries and prefer that individuals purchase books rather than providing options for loaning books.

try itTry It!
Go to the E-Book Media and Communications Toolkit at the American Library Association website. Browse the resources available to librarians in exploring e-book options.

The Future of Publishing

It's impossible to know what the future holds, but some scholars are speculating on the possibilities.

try itTry It!
Browse Finn, Ed (ed) (2013) The Future of Publishing, Volume 1. The Future of the Book. Arizona Board of Regents. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Do you agree or disagree with this report's ideas about the future?

To learn more about this project go to Sprint Beyond Book.


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