A success story spelt out in black and white

The Business of Books

September 7, 2007

The London book and newspaper businesses have not been neglected by British and American historians. Cambridge University Press is involved in a multi volume History of the Book in Britain . Robin Myers and Michael Harris have edited 25 volumes of British book trade history, with still more volumes expected.

James Raven's bibliography lists some 450 published books, 200 journal articles and 22 UK and US manuscript collections. Raven's book is indeed about the business of books, but after about 1700 most of the larger booksellers were primarily what we today would call book publishers.

Raven focuses on the English (and primarily London) book trade over a 400-year period, which allows him to point to massive changes. Between 1450 and 1600, the small English book trade was based in London and dominated by state regulation and state cartel via the Stationers' Company. Political and religious control was salient; England was a heavy importer of English language books published in continental Europe. Booksellers then were indeed businesspeople, much of whose business involved retailing (imported) books.

From 1740 to 1840, London's hugely expanded book trade was much more lightly regulated. London had become a big net exporter of books to North America and elsewhere. The 20 or so largest "booksellers" by the late 18th century were publishing entrepreneurs who also did some book retailing.

Until 1814, publishing remained dependent on craft production and craft labour. Each side of each sheet of paper was printed by hand under cramped, hot and unhealthy conditions.

In the latter half of the 18th century, the number of separately printed items in Britain (and in English) increased about fivefold. This rapid growth took place against a more liberal regulatory background, in terms of copyright laws and taxation. Novels became fashionable, as did commercial circulating libraries. Daily newspaper publishing experienced explosive growth, leading to 16 London daily newspapers by 1793. Also growing rapidly was periodical publication, and thrice-weekly and twice-weekly newspapers were published for sale outside London.

The common factor was serial publishing, although the publication of one-off chap booklets, leaflets and downmarket non-respectable publications continued. By the late 18th century, the leading 20 "booksellers" were engaged in serial publishing - not only newspapers and periodicals but books; for example, John Bell published 109 volumes in his Poets of Great Britain book series between 1776 and 1782.

Despite Raven's 1450-1850 time span, more than half of his book deals with the period 1740 to 1840. His focus is narrow in another sense, too, because the leading publisher-booksellers were concentrated on the north bank of the Thames between London Bridge and Charing Cross. Raven indicates some 39 streets and squares that were book-trade active within an area roughly three by one kilometres.

The absolute centre of the book trade in the 18th century was Paternoster Row (not far from the west door of St Paul's Cathedral). During the period 1795 99, some 16 publisher-booksellers occupied premises on the street. Typically there was a front room, which opened on to the street and offered books, periodicals, stationery and related products. But the building overall was a publisher's office.

Raven gives us a fascinating account of how this industrial-social system operated. The bookseller-publisher dealt with printers, paper suppliers, binders and providers of warehouse storage for printed books and unbound pages. In 1700, most leading bookseller-publishers still lived at their Paternoster Row or Fleet Street premises. But by 1840, the leading book businessmen had become wealthy and could afford grander houses in Westminster, Islington or Hampstead.

Raven offers many insights into the strong family element in the book business, which appeared to be male-dominated, but important roles were often played by daughters, sisters, wives and widows.

Although Raven relentlessly insists on the commercial character of the book business, key financial details remain elusive. Raven himself argues that relatively little financial detail has survived. He is remarkably reluctant to generalise or to speculate on the basis of the financial detail that is available.

Books, then as now, needed to be financed over an extended period. Evidently this was risky business - books were often lost at sea and in fires; indeed, fire insurance records are one of Raven's sources of fresh data. Clearly, control of copyright in a limited number of high-sale items was crucial. Raven frequently refers both to "commodification" and to elements of "cartel", but he fails adequately to analyse these business aspects.

Raven's book has been handsomely published by Yale University Press, but style and spelling are British rather than American. This is a work of scholarship and research; it is not a student text and, despite some excellent illustrations, not a coffee-table book.

Raven focuses relentlessly on the people he continues to refer to as "booksellers". He has little to tell us about readers, literacy, libraries or authors. There is a tendency to 60 or 70-word sentences and to long lists of names, locations, dates and publications. In terms of readability, this book compares unfavourably with such classics as Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979).

We are told little about the upstairs-downstairs aspect of London publishing and bookselling. Raven refers only very briefly to pornographic bookselling, which was concentrated outside the east end of Saint Paul's. There is little here about the book as a fashion item, or about expensive bookcases filled with specially bound volumes as items of conspicuous display.

Like some other press and book historians, Raven shows little interest in how aspects of present-day London publishing were evident 200 years ago. Then, as now, ownership of copyright (today's "intellectual property") was crucial. Serial publication was central. The business was dominated by about 20 leading enterprises that operated across several different media and engaged in heavy cross-promotion. Individual mogul bookseller-publishers took entrepreneurial risks and were shameless self-publicists. There were hundreds of unsuccessful small outfits, and bankruptcy was common. Most print runs were small and many books were remaindered. London dominated.

This is an impressive work of scholarship, firmly based on many old, and some new, sources. Its main markets will be university libraries and professional historians. Political scientists will find little here about politics. Sociologists will regret the lack of theory and fresh quantified analysis. English literature specialists will prefer to wait for Raven's promised book on the publication and financing of 18th and 19th-century novels. Linguists will be frustrated by the lack of comparisons with Europe and China. Geographers will find little discussion as to why the book and newspaper businesses were located in the St Paul's-Fleet Street-Strand area for some 500 years.

I have found this to be an interesting but less than reader-friendly book.

For beach or leisure reading, you'd better stick with an old page-turner such as Boswell's Life of Johnson .

Jeremy Tunstall is emeritus professor of sociology at City University, London.

The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade, 1450-1850

Author - James Raven
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 493
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 97803001226169

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