Last word on the making of M. & Co

December 12, 2003

For the fledgling academic specialism of publishing history, the house of Macmillan presents a model case study. The history of M. & Co (we are reminded in this volume that, within the company, the firm was never known as Macmillan) offers a paradigm of many of the key developments in the history of the British publishing industry as a whole since the mid-19th century.

Typically, the small family firm moved into publishing after initially dealing as booksellers, helping over the years both to serve and to cultivate a hugely expanding readership in this country. The history charts an archetypal cycle of shifting attitudes towards books encompassing veneration, earnest altruism and a more commercially utilitarian respect for a marketable and profitable commodity.

The Macmillan story highlights many of the changing tastes in reading and the evolution of different book-buying markets, while revealing the development of the various marketing tools and techniques that were used to influence tastes and to exploit growing markets. Above all else, it is a representative tale of the attempts of a family to maintain editorial and administrative control over its publishing business; more tenacious and more enduring than many such families, Macmillan and the Macmillans survived as more than just an imprint name until the most recent conglomerative times.

It is not often that the publishing historian is offered such a complete story, nor, moreover, one for which so much primary documentation survives. In her introduction to Macmillan: A Publishing Tradition , Elizabeth James reveals how close Macmillan's vast accumulation of correspondence, ledgers and other back-office materials came to dispersal when the company relocated its supply and distribution operations to Basingstoke in the mid-1960s. Mercifully, the files are now safely housed in the British Library: 2,200 carefully organised volumes composing, as Warwick Gould described in The Times Literary Supplement in 1990, "the finest publisher's archive in the world".

The immense potential value of this archive, together with the smaller collections of Macmillan correspondence held at the University of Reading and the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, is clear from the work of each of the contributors to this collection of conference papers and essays. It is a wide-ranging group, including academics from English departments in Britain, North America and India, specialists in the history of the book, librarians past and present and former Macmillan publishers.

Their combined contributions exhibit the versatility of scholarship that a near-complete publisher's archive can enable. The range encompasses Simon Eliot's rigorously quantified analysis of Macmillan's output in the second half of the 19th century, studies of the relations between authors (Hardy, Tennyson, Keynes, W. B. Yeats, Matthew Arnold), their texts and their publishers, the work of a publisher of children's and illustrated books, and glances at Macmillan's international influence in India and the US.

The Macmillan novice would benefit from a little preparatory background study to get the most from this compilation - Richard Davenport-Hines' The Macmillans (1992), a discursive history of the family and its business, would be a good place to start. Above all else, the range of the scrupulously researched individual elements of Macmillan is a fine indicator of the diverse directions of analysis and interpretation being developed by scholars of publishing history. And Nicolas Barker's closing shot is an elegant reminder of the evocative value of personal recollection, and of the fact that we should not lose sight of the personalities behind the statistics.

Christopher Phipps is reader services librarian, London Library.

Macmillan: A Publishing Tradition

Editor - Elizabeth James
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 3
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 333 73517 X

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