Book Publishing (American History Through Literature)
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, publishing in the United States was primarily the work of small, local printers or booksellers; by the time of the Civil War, publishing had become a modern business,
THE GROWTH OF AN INDUSTRY
The size and economic significance of the book publishing industry increased steadily throughout the period 1820870. Between 1830 and 1842, about 100 books per year were issued by U.S. publishers; by 1853 the number had jumped to 879; and by 1860 more than 1,300 American books were published. On the eve of the Civil War, there were four hundred publishing firms in the United States. John Tebbel has estimated the gross value of books manufactured and sold in the United States in 1820 at $2.5 million (with schoolbooks accounting for the largest single category, at $750,000); a decade later, in 1830, the gross value is estimated to have been $3.5 million; for 1840 the value was $5.5 million; for 1850, $12.5 million; and for 1856, $16 million, with New York publishers alone representing $6 million. Throughout the period (and in fact well into the twentieth century), the publishing industry as a whole cultivated a self-image as a genteel, often family-run, enterprise self-consciously performing the important civic duty of disseminating knowledge to the nation; yet the publishing industry was also a volatile, risky, and at times even cutthroat businessore volatile, perhaps, before the Civil War, but with increasingly high economic stakes throughout the century. While several major publishing houses established before the war thrived and endured (in several cases, to the present day), many other publishers were buffeted by the economic depressions of 1837 and 1857, by the disruptions of the war, or were simply unable to compete in the business and failed.
At the beginning of the period considered here (1820), publishers in the United States were printing works by British authors over those by American authors by a ratio of more than two to one. The United States was only at this moment beginning to produce any major writers (Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper were the nation's first successful professional writers with genuinely international reputations); moreover, British works, unprotected by international copyright, were not only better known to U.S. readers but also cheaper for U.S. publishers to print. In 1834 the average cost for a single volume by an American author was $1.20; by a foreign author, $.75. Nevertheless, over the next several decades the ratio of British- to American-authored works shifted steadily in the other direction, reaching a roughly equal balance around 1840, and by 1856 the ratio was roughly seventy to thirty in favor of American-authored books. Gradually U.S. writers reaped the benefits of America simply having a much larger market, which was drawn to native products: by the mid-1850s best-selling books in England sold in the neighborhood of ten thousand copies, compared to numbers reaching fifty thousand in the United States. Moreover, by 1860, school textbooks comprised the single largest category of books published in the United States (about 30 percent to 40 percent of the total market), and American schools preferred American texts, such as Noah Webster's numerous readers, spelling and grammar books, and dictionaries.
THE CENTRALIZATION OF THE INDUSTRY
As the publishing industry grew, it became increasingly centralized. The Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey was the first to successfully enter into large-scale book production and distribution. His firm dominated the publishing industry of the 1820s, but New York publishing houses soon followed its example. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, almost half the works of American fiction were printed outside of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston; but by the 1840s, only 8 percent were published outside of these cities, New York having by this time surpassed Philadelphia as the leading publishing center, with Boston remaining third in importance. Before the Civil War, only modest publishing enterprises existed in the South, in such cities as Richmond, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina; and Cincinnati, Ohio, emerged as an important early western publishing centery 1850 it was just behind Boston. In the decades after the Civil War, New York extended its domination of the publishing industry, though Boston and Philadelphia continued to support large, enduring publishing establishments, and Chicago surpassed Cincinnati as the major publishing center in the West.
Although many publishers in the United States had begun as retail booksellers, with the expansion and centralization of the publishing industry, major publishing houses gave up the retail component of their businesses almost entirely and concentrated on large-scale wholesale production and wide distribution. The Philadelphia firm of Carey and Lea shut down its retail business in 1830; and the dominant New York publishing house, Harper's, succeeded in part because it eschewed the retail business right from the time of its establishment in 1817. Boston firms, slower in expanding into the national market, also retained their retail components longer.
Harper's was the predominant U.S. publishing house through the Civil War years, establishing a very strong base with textbook publishing as well as relying on periodical publication and on reprinting uncopy-righted popular British works. Other major New York houses established before the Civil War and that continued to thrive in the decades after the war (though house names tended to shift over time) include Appleton's (established 1831), John Wiley and Sons (established 1814), G. P. Putnam (established 1836), Dodd, Mead, and Company (established 1839), Scribner's (established 1846), and Edward Dutton (established 1852). Among enduring Philadelphia publishing houses, Lippincott (established 1836) was second to the Carey firm in importance. Boston emerged as a leading publisher of belles lettres, the most important houses being Little and Brown (established 1837), Ticknor and Fields (established 1832), and, somewhat later, Houghton (established 1864). While many of these houses vied for the popular writers of the day, especially as fiction became increasingly popular, they also realized the necessity of establishing more reliable business with textbooks, religious works, scientific writing, and the like, and over time each publisher tended to establish its specialty. Several publishers (such as Harper's, Ticknor and Fields, and Putnam) also capitalized on the magazine boom that began in the second quarter of the century and published magazines whose contents complemented their book lists.
ADVANCES IN PRINT TECHNOLOGY
The technology of book publishing had changed little since the fifteenth century; then, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, several dramatic improvements revolutionized printing and made possible the emergence of the modern publishing industry. Isaac Adams developed the steam-driven flatbed press in the early 1830s, which immediately made printing both faster and easier. In 1847 Robert Hoe further improved upon Adams's flatbed press by inventing the steam-powered cylinder press. Hoe's first press used four impression cylinders and could make eight thousand impressions per hour; by the end of the Civil War, rotary presses using ten cylinders could make fifteen thousand impressions per hour. Also crucial to the modernization of publishing was the invention of stereotype (1811) and then electrotype (1841) plates. These were simply metal molds of set type that could then be stored and reused for subsequent printings. Setting type had been a labor-intensive, skilled job, and once an edition was printed, the type had to be broken up to be reused; creating another edition meant having to reset the type from scratch. With stereotyping and electrotyping, subsequent editions could be produced quickly and inexpensively; the plates were portable and storable and could also be sold; moreover, they also took much of the risk out of estimating the appropriate size of a first printing. After 1865 curved stereotype plates were developed to accommodate cylinder presses.
Papermaking also became faster and cheaper during this period. By the 1830s papermaking machines began to employ belts and cylinders that allowed for the production of paper in the form of a continuous roll rather than as single sheets; and after the 1850s paper itself was being produced from inexpensive wood pulp rather than the more expensive cotton and linen rags. The actual binding and manufacturing of books was also made cheaper and more efficient, beginning before mid-century and extending through the 1870s, by the mechanization of paper cutting and folding, gluing, marbling, gilding, and embossing.
CHEAP BOOKS, FANCY BOOKS
As the book market expanded and the technology improved, publishers early began to produce multiple editions of the same book, at varying prices, for different markets, ranging from very inexpensive paper- or cardboard-bound editions to elaborately bound and gilt-edged editions of the highest quality, exhibiting the state of the art of book production. The first "paperback revolution" took place in the 1840s, by which time the United States had the largest literate population in the world. The publication of cheap books was stimulated by the frantic competition among publishers for profits from the reprinting of popular foreign works unprotected by international copyright and was enabled by the transformation of print technology (in particular the cylinder press) that allowed for the very rapid publication of large-volume, low-cost books. The boundaries between books and periodicals began to blur when, in 1841 and 1842, New York's competing weekly periodicals Brother Jonathan and the New World, which had both been serially reprinting "pirated" British novels, now began to produce entire novels sold as "extras" or "supplements" to their regular weekly issues. Sold on the streets with colorful paper covers, or sent through the mail without covers (and so taking advantage of postage regulations that distinguished between books and newspapers), these mass-market books sold for twenty-five cents. As competition heated up, other periodical publishers and book publishers entered the fray (in some cases issuing cheap editions of the same novel simultaneously); soon entire paperbound novels were selling for as little as six cents, severely threatening the entire publishing industry (as well as drastically diminishing the already constrained market for U.S. authors). Only changes in postal regulations implemented in 1844 brought this paperback war to a halt. There was again a market for cheap paperbound books inaugurated in 1860 by "Beadle's Dime Novels," for which demand grew steadily, even during the Civil War when they (and other cheap paperbound books) were popular in the military camps. After a brief lull in the popularity of cheap books, a new wave of low-cost book production, both hardbound and paperback, began in the 1870s.
At the other end of book-production technology, the "gift books" and "souvenirs" that were in vogue in the 1830s and 1840s (and which, like the cheap "supplements," also tended to blur the boundaries between books and periodicals) featured elaborate, state-of-the-art bindings, illustrations, and printing, at prices within reach of the growing genteel middle class. Although well-known writers sometimes contributed to these gift books, they were clearly less important as texts than they were as artifacts of genteel culture and showcases for bookmaking arts. Publishers also printed elaborately bound and embossed, gilt-edged, and illustrated editions of selected individual works, from Bibles to poetry. Harper's tremendously ambitious Harper's Illustrated Bible, published serially in fifty-four parts (1843846), was an important early demonstration of the marketability of elaborately illustrated books, though developments in illustration ultimately had a greater impact on magazines than on book production.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston were the three largest cities in the United States. Because publishing was largely a local enterprise before 1820, it is not surprising that the largest cities were also the largest producers of books. More extended book distribution was hampered at this time by difficult and unreliable roadways, and so, until mid-century, distribution of goods depended heavily on waterways. This was a significant factor in the steady rise of Philadelphia and New York as major publishing centers, with their combination of deep harbors and their access to navigable inland waterways enabling them to reach both coastal and inland markets. Philadelphia tended to dominate the southern market, New York the western market. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 was a major advance in the reliable and timely distribution of goods into the West, and it especially benefited the rise of New York as a publishing center. Boston was the third major publishing center, with a strong, highly literate local market and a good harbor for expanded coastal trade, but it was hampered by its lack of navigable rivers inland. In the West, Cincinnati's situation on the Ohio River made it the leading western publishing center until after the Civil War. Waterways were not reliably accessible year-round, however, and winter freezes largely constrained extended book distribution to seasonal cycles.
The introduction of the railroad was therefore crucial to the extension of affordable and dependable distribution of goods beyond local markets, and the rapid expansion of the railways after the 1840s was crucial to the consolidation and nationalization of the publishing industry. Prior to mid-century, Boston publishers had been quite slow to engage in wholesale publishing and extended distribution, and they tended to retain the identity of local printers and retailers, competing more with each other for the local retail trade than with New York and Philadelphia publishers for a more extended, national market. The development of the railways, however, and particularly the extension of railways beyond the Alleghenies as of 1850, was an important factor in the reemergence of Boston as a major publishing center. The first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, of course dramatically transformed accessibility to the emerging Far West at the very end of the period under consideration here.
Publishers were slow to advertise their products before the Civil War, except for trade circulars and modest notices in papers and in the back pages of their own books. Beyond these, publishers relied primarily on reviews to promote their books, and this singular reliance tended to corrupt reviews and reviewing, with publishers pressuring reviewers to "puff" their books. As late as the 1870s, even major publishing houses were typically spending only around one hundred dollars to promote a book. Advertising was perhaps constrained not only by the volatility of the business and the narrow profit margins but also by the industry's self-cultivated image that publishers were genteel public servants. Thus, even when they did begin to advertise, their ads were conservative and staid.
At the beginning of the period under consideration, publisher-author relations were quite variable. Because most publishers were still also retailers, generally undercapitalized and competing for relatively small local markets, they were not inclined to take significant risks on authors. The simplest publishing arrangement, then, was one in which the author bore the financial risks and simply employed the publisher to manufacture and sell books. Under this arrangement, the author saw a profit only if and when production costs were met. This arrangement, of course, required the author himself to have sufficient capital to publish the book. In some cases, the publisher allowed the author to charge manufacturing costs against sales, but if sales were insufficient to recoup production costs the author was still indebted to the publisher for the balance. Washington Irving (1783859) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789851), the first U.S. writers to demonstrate the economic viability of authorship, reaped considerable benefit from underwriting the cost of manufacture while retaining the rights and also owning the plates for their books. Well into the mid-century, such successful authors as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807882) also chose to underwrite and thus retain control of the publication of their works, confident that they could recoup costs and ultimately realize a greater profit. For other authors, however, such arrangements were prohibitive or highly risky. When Henry David Thoreau (1817862) was unable to find a publisher willing to risk the costs of producing his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), he was persuaded to undertake the financial responsibility himself; but four years later Thoreau owed his publisher $290 for unsold copies.
Balancing the economic risks more evenly between author and publisher was the "half-profits" agreement, by which the author and publisher split both the costs (and therefore the risks) of production and also the profits on sales. When publishers were sufficiently well capitalized and anticipated strong sales, they were willing to undertake the entire risk of production and distribution costs in exchange for publishing rights, in which case they paid authors a commission, or royalty, on sales, usually set from 10 percent to 15 percent of the retail sales prices. When the Boston publisher John P. Jewett agreed to publish Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), he offered Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896) a choice between a half-profits contract or a 10 percent royalty on retail sales. Stowe, advised not to risk her own capital, accepted the royalty contract; as it turned out, Stowe ended up accepting 10 percent rather than half the profits of the best-selling book of the centuryver 300,000 copies in its first year. By the end of the 1850s, however, as the publishing industry grew and became more centralized, royalty agreements became the standardized and mutually preferable contractual arrangement between publisher and author.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century, U.S. copyright laws regarded printed materials as essentially public property, the private rights to which were ceded to authors or publishers only temporarily and with numerous constraints. The first national American copyright law, in 1790, protected only U.S. citizens and residents, and these copyrights could be held for only fourteen years, renewable for another fourteen years if the author was still living at the expiration of the first fourteen-year term. In 1831 copyright was redefined as heritable property, and the initial term was extended to twenty-eight years. Subsequently the term of copyright was extended still further. While copyright was perceived from the very beginning as an incentive for the publication and dissemination of learning and culture, this same interest in the public dissemination of knowledge was invoked in limiting individual property rights in print material. Most legal, economic, and commercial printed materials could not be copyrighted at all. The Supreme Court case of Clayton v. Stone (1829) confirmed that materials printed in newspapers were public property and could not be copyrighted. This principle was implicitly extended to magazine literature as wellegarded as equally ephemeral and equally publicnd so newspaper and magazine literature was widely reprinted without permissions or payments. While such reprinting kept costs down and so served the interests of periodical publishers and consumers alike, it of course worked to the great disadvantage of U.S. authors and those periodicals that were paying increasingly substantial fees for original material. The 1834 Supreme Court decision Wheaton v. Peters reinforced the underlying public right to printed materials as a matter of public interest, even as market forces continued to exert pressure in favor of increased copyright protections. The 1854 Supreme Court decision Stowe v. Thomas established very narrow rights even for literary matter printed in book form: when Harriet Beecher Stowe brought suit against an unauthorized (American) translation into German of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the court determined that only the exact words of a printed text were protected by copyright; an author's rights did not extend to translations (or to any other "original" appropriation, whether as a play or a parlor game or decorated plates). Not until 1870 did Congress grant to authors the legal rights to the dramatization and translation of their published works.
Although the absence of international copyright became an increasingly contentious issue after the 1830s, no international copyright law was passed until 1891. The mass market for literature that emerged in the decades prior to the Civil War depended heavily on the cheap reprinting of pirated foreign materials unprotected by international copyright. While the availability of uncopyrighted foreign texts was crucial to the growth of several leading publishing housesost notably Harper'snd therefore contributed to the increasing consolidation and centralization of the publishing industry, it was also the case that this same lack of copyright protection enabled any printer or publisher to participate in the production of cheap reprints, and so the absence of international copyright laws also acted as a counterforce to the centralizing process, enabling the persistence of decentralized, local printers. Opposition to international copyright laws was cast in political and ideological, as well as economic, terms: the absence of international copyright laws facilitated the dissemination of information, knowledge, and culture that promoted an informed, democratic citizenry. In political terms, opposition to international copyright was part of a more comprehensive resistance to centralized government and so constituted one of several issues dividing the decentralizing Jacksonian Democrats and the federalist Whigs.
Another important source of resistance to international copyright came from almost all of those who labored in the actual production of books (printers and typesetters, binders, papermakers, and so forth), who feared that such laws would severely diminish the publication of cheap reprints on which their continued employment largely depended. In the debates over international copyright, then, the interests of U.S. authors tended to be opposed to those of publishers, laborers, and consumers. U.S. (and British) authors advocated strenuously for international copyright laws through most of the century, petitioning Congress repeatedly from the 1830s through the 1850s, but to no avail. Petitions to Congress were renewed after the Civil War, and Congress engaged in serious debate about international copyright from 1870 to 1873, but nearly twenty more years would pass before an international copyright law was finally enacted. Especially before the Civil War, advocates of international copyright argued that the absence of such laws placed U.S. writers at an unfair disadvantage with publishers. International copyright law was thus represented not as a matter of fairness to foreign writers but as a matter of American literary nationalism. They argued that international copyright would not only protect the rights of U.S. authors but, by making American works more marketable, also help break American dependence on British culture. Of course, the lack of international copyright could cut both ways. Between 1841 and 1846, 382 American books were printed in England without permissions or payments to authors, and by the late 1860s U.S. writers began to complain about British piracy of American worksut before the Civil War this was not yet a significant component of the arguments in support of international copyright. Most publishers opposed international copyright laws, arguing not only on behalf of their own economic interest but also that of U.S. consumers. Publishers also recognized, however, that the absence of international copyright created a highly competitive, risky, and nearly anarchic market for foreign reprints, and so they came to practice an informal means of self-regulation, referred to as the "courtesy of the trade," by which any publisher who announced in print its intention to bring out an edition of a foreign work would be granted proprietary rights to it by other publishing houses. And in order to secure the privileges of the first American printing, publishers sometimes voluntarily paid foreign authors for their manuscripts or their cooperation. These trade "courtesies" were unenforceable and only partially successful (the cheap book wars of the 1840s between book publishers and newspaper "supplement" reprints of foreign works made such courtesies entirely impracticable), but they continued to be widely honored in the years after the Civil War.
See also Dime Novels; Editors; Gift Books and Annuals; Literary Marketplace; Periodicals; Publishers
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