Book publishing Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Book publishing has been a significant presence in America since colonial times, with almanacs, primers, and law books originally forming the foundation of the industry. Since 1640, when the first printed book was published in America, the book publishing industry grown into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Publishing came to America in 1639, when the Day (also spelled Daye) family imported a printing press from England. After the family printed its first book, The Whole Booke of Psalmes, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, theology became the leading genre of American publishing for more than a century. Printing was restricted to Cambridge until 1674, when Marmaduke Johnson, a publisher who came to America to print an Indian Bible (1663), moved his press to Boston. The Boston-Cambridge area was to remain a center of publishing in the United States.Publishing industryBooks;publishing

Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, other significant centers of publishing developed; Philadelphia acquired a printing press in 1685, and New York City’s first press arrived in 1693. The eighteenth century brought wider readership among the middle classes. Theology remained the leading genre, but almanacs, primers, and law books also formed foundations of the industry.

Commercial lending libraries appeared in America during the eighteenth century, and they were followed by free, public lending libraries in the nineteenth century. Public libraries generated concern among publishers, who believed that such free access to books would decrease sales. Instead, the increased circulation of books through libraries expanded audience size and stimulated sales.

Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century marked a new era in publishing, as the industry’s development was stimulated by advances in technology and transportation. Around the same time, New York City emerged as the leading center of the publishing industry in the United States, largely as a result of the founding of three large New York-based publishing houses: Harper Bros. in 1817, George Palmer Putnam and John Wiley’s house in 1840, and Charles Scribner’s house in 1846. New York’s publishing houses were able to use the Erie Canal to expand their market base into the West. They took advantage of their larger market base, printing and shipping books in larger quantities to cut costs. Many small publishing houses could not compete effectively and were eventually driven out of business.

Twentieth Century

At the beginning of the twentieth century, literary agents appeared. Literary agents represented authors in contract negotiations and were consistently able to obtain high rates of royalties and large advance payments for their clients. These higher sums for authors decreased the publishing houses’ profit margins, making it more difficult and less common for houses to speculate on new authors. Literary agents may also have been indirectly responsible for the increased marketing efforts that appeared around the same time: As higher payments to the author became common, publishing houses placed additional emphasis on generating sales to maintain reasonable profits.

In spite of resource shortages, Word War I had a relatively small impact on the American publishing industry. One significant effect of the war was a decrease in purchasing power among the middle class, and publishers began to look to other markets to maintain their profits. During this time period, universities grew significantly in both number and size, causing the demand for college textbooks to grow rapidly. Eventually, many publishing houses depended on their educational departments to generate income and support less profitable undertakings. Textbooks were also in demand in primary and secondary schools; these textbooks became another significant income generator, as the adoption of a textbook or series guaranteed large-scale sales, with the likelihood of a long-term relationship.

The Great Depression;publishing industryGreat Depression had an immediate effect on America’s publishing industry, bringing drastically decreased sales, minimal profits, and numerous bankruptcies. Publishers began to experiment with new marketing techniques to attract readers, including holding the first book fair in America, which was held by The New York Times during the 1930’s. To mitigate the effects of the Depression on booksellers, Simon & Schuster developed the policy of accepting returns on unsold books for credit against future purchases. Other publishers quickly followed, and the practice became standard in the industry.

As did World War I, World War II had minimal negative impact on the publishing industry, and postwar boom conditions stimulated significant economic growth. The middle class grew quickly, causing the book market to expand, and the number of publishing houses grew in response. In addition, the paperback was reintroduced to the market after the war, allowing publishers to sell cheaper books to a wider audience. By the early 1950’s, the paperback had become the most widely distributed type of book; this remained true into the twenty-first century.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, the publishing industry became increasingly centered in a few large conglomerates. As had been the case in the nineteenth century, small publishers were unable to compete and were forced out of business. Around the same time, a new category of publishers was created: the nonprofit press. Nonprofit presses are typically focused on putting forth the work of a particular genre or set of genres, but they all share the mission of producing work that otherwise might be passed over by the larger publishers as lacking in commercial appeal.

A new medium, e-books, or E-books[Ebooks]electronic books, appeared in 1971, when Michael Hart created the first electronic book: a copy of the Declaration of Independence. In spite of initial concerns about e-books infringing on the traditional book market, major publishing companies began to work at the end of the twentieth century to understand and establish themselves in the e-book market. During the early twenty-first century, e-books began to gain mainstream acceptance and expanded into new formats, such as installment books compatible with cell phone displays.

Further Reading
  • Epstein, Jason. Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future. New York City: W. W. Norton, 2002. Based on a series of lectures given by Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House, this book provides a unique perspective on the publishing industry.
  • Greco, Albert N. The Book Publishing Industry. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004. Detailed summary of the book publishing business and a bibliography of related literature.
  • Kirsch, Jonathan. Kirsch’s Handbook of Publishing Law: For Authors, Publishers, Editors, and Agents. Marina del Rey, Calif.: Acrobat Books, 1994. Comprehensive overview of publishing law.
  • Rosenthal, Morris. Print-on-Demand Book Publishing: A New Approach to Printing and Marketing Books for Publishers and Self-Publishing Authors. Springfield, Mass.: Foner Books, 2004. Self-published book exploring print-on-demand publishing.
  • Tebbel, John. A History of Publishing in the United States. 4 vols. Harwich Port, Mass.: Clock & Rose Press, 2003. Historical overview of book publishing in the United States.

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