48 The History of the Book in America
48 The History of the Book in America
2 The colonial period: a transatlantic world of books
3 The 19th century: print cultures in the expanding nation
4 1890–1950: modern business and cultural capital
5 1950 to the present: the American book in a global economy
For nearly four centuries, the production and distribution of books has occurred within broader transformations of the American economy. Colonists in British North America depended on London for their bibles and much other reading matter, even as local printers produced many of the secular staples of everyday life. Those colonial printers and their successors in the new United States worked within the craft economy that typified most early American manufacturing. During the nation’s industrial revolution of the 19th century, capitalist publishing firms came to dominate an increasingly sophisticated trade that encompassed sometimes complex author–publisher relations, mechanized production processes, and nationwide networks of distribution and credit. Modern business methods and the ascendancy of *advertising reshaped publishing and bookselling in the first half of the 20th century, even as publishers sought to preserve the notion of books and literature as a realm apart from the marketplace. Since World War II, American books have more and more become the products of a global economy, where publishing conglomerates and, more recently, the *World Wide Web blur the boundaries between nations.
Because the book has never been like most economic commodities, which are utilitarian and for which equivalent substitutes can be found, its meaning has always been linked to the central tensions in American culture. The capitalist market for books has simultaneously promoted broad access to diverse publications and fuelled a persistent concern about the welfare of the nation’s literary and spiritual life. Cultural mediators have sought to exert centripetal force on Americans’ choices for and their practices of reading from the 17th century to the present day. From Puritan authorities who attempted to guard early New Englanders from worldly publications, to 20th-century cultural figures who hoped to restore the place of ‘great books’ in America’s schools and homes, individuals and institutions have seen the book as a bulwark against spiritual decline and secular democracy. Yet American history has witnessed an ever-expanding array of religious, ethnic, occupational, political, and regional ties, which complicate any unitary definition of national culture. That multiplicity of collective identities, as well as the differences among the intermediaries themselves, has worked to foster a wider range of meanings, purposes, and settings for reading.
2 The colonial period: a transatlantic world of books
2.1 17th-century printing
Printing in America before 1700 was a colonial endeavour in most respects. The first printers were immigrants, some of whose families would remain in the trade for generations, such as the Greens of New England and the Bradfords of Pennsylvania and New York. For lack of manufacturing in the colonies, they imported their capital goods (presses, *type, *composing sticks, and other materials) and even their paper, until the establishment of America’s first *paper mill outside Philadelphia in 1690. Far from London, some Boston and Cambridge printers produced their own *almanacs and other cheap books as early as 1640, when the *Bay Psalm Book became the first book printed in British North America.
The Licensing Act (see printing act) of 1662, however, gave the London *Stationers’ Company a royal *patent on most of the significant works and genres, including bibles, *psalters, *textbooks, almanacs, and *law books. Long after that Act expired in 1695, economic factors posed still greater barriers to indigenous colonial production. Except for identifiably strong sellers, particularly annual almanacs and schoolbooks such as the *New England Primer, few books justified the risk required for a sufficient *press run to meet the costs of capitalization. Importing small quantities of works from England was much more profitable for colonial booksellers.
American printing in the 17th century depended heavily on governmental and clerical *imprimatur and *patronage. The earliest press was at Cambridge, brought from England in 1638 to serve the needs of Harvard College, the General Court (colony government), and John Eliot’s mission to the Massachusett Indians. It was not until after the publication of Eliot’s Indian Bible (1661–3) that the Cambridge printers Marmaduke Johnson and Samuel *Green began reprinting London *pamphlets, a short-lived commercial endeavour that the colonial magistrates may have closed. In 1674, the General Court granted Johnson permission to operate a press in Boston, where printing quickly assumed a different character. While Cambridge imprints were local and ecclesiastical, Boston’s diverse productions included histories and biographies, almanacs, practical *medical texts, and other works catering to an incipient commercial market.
Printing was slower to originate in Virginia. In 1671, more than six decades after the colony’s founding, Governor William Berkeley wrote to the English government about the potentially destabilizing effects of printing and schools: ‘But I thank God, there are no free schools or printing [in Virginia], and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years, for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!’ (Hening, 2. 517). Virginia’s laws were published *scribally until the early 1680s, when a member of the House of Burgesses imported a press and a skilled printer, *Nuthead, to print them. The governor and council quickly ordered the process to be stopped for lack of authorization, and Nuthead departed for Maryland, becoming that colony’s first printer. Pennsylvania’s proprietor, William Penn, brought its earliest printer, William *Bradford, to the colony to produce Quaker materials. After various disputes with the authorities, Bradford left to become New York’s first official printer.
2.2 The 18th-century book trade
If colonial printing began and sometimes ended at the whim of governmental authority, the 18th-century rise of printers in the northern seaport cities betokened a new era of commercial, competitive *print culture. Philadelphia, where Benjamin *Franklin made his way in 1723, is illustrative. Andrew Bradford, son of William, became Pennsylvania’s government printer in the 1710s, but his output remained the typical mix of laws, almanacs, and religious publications. A London emigrant and failed printer, Samuel Keimer, arrived the same year as Franklin, established a competing press, and hired the seventeen-year-old Bostonian as his pressman. Soon Bradford and Keimer were printing rival political pamphlets and almanacs and vying for the most lucrative contracts, from the Society of Friends and the government. After an eighteen-month sojourn in London, Franklin entered the fray. With press and type ordered from London, he and Hugh Meredith opened their own *printing office in 1728 and won a Quaker commission that had languished in Keimer’s hands. His ambition to publish a rival newspaper to Bradford’s American Weekly Mercury foiled by Keimer’s launch of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin satirized Keimer’s paper in articles for Bradford’s, then bought the Gazette when its circulation plummeted. By 1730, Pennsylvania’s political wars had cooled and Keimer had departed for Barbados, leaving Franklin indisputably Philadelphia’s second printer. *Zenger played the same role in New York, setting up shop in competition with his former master, William Bradford. However, where Franklin printed contributions from all sides of the political debate, Zenger allied his New-York Weekly Journal with the council and against the governor—leading to the libel trial that would eventually make his name a staple of journalistic history.
Franklin built his reputation by capitalizing on nearly every niche in an increasingly intercolonial print culture. In addition to the Gazette and his *Poor Richard’s Almanack, he published books occasionally at his own risk, generally English works of proven appeal. More often, he printed books and pamphlets for other individuals or for corporate bodies such as the Presbyterian synod or the *Library Company of Philadelphia, which he founded in 1731. A significant portion of his business was in the *jobbing printing of legal *forms and other *ephemera. He procured lucrative government contracts to print the laws and proceedings of the Pennsylvania assembly and issues of paper money for Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, and he won Pennsylvania’s postmastership in 1737. Through partnership arrangements, Franklin helped establish printing offices across the colonies, including his former *journeyman *Timothy’s office in Charleston, South Carolina. He also set up paper mills (including Virginia’s first) to control the supply for his own printing and to assist printers elsewhere. By the 1750s, he was the colonies’ largest paper merchant as well as Philadelphia’s leading book importer and bookseller. Remarkable both in its own time and in the perspective of his subsequent scientific, political, and diplomatic career, Franklin’s life as a printer was an unusually diverse variation on the 18th-century norm. Colonial printers made a living by combining printing and bookselling and by emphasizing jobbing printing and *government printing over work on their own account. Only in Boston did a distinctive bookselling trade develop in imports from London and in locally sponsored works. By the 1740s, with the growth of commerce between the colonies, the distribution of domestically printed works went beyond their place of production as men like Franklin and his network of printer-booksellers exchanged works from New England to South Carolina.
The 18th century also witnessed an expanding transatlantic book trade, for imports of British books far outpaced population growth in British North America. It has been estimated that ‘America-bound shipments between 1771 and 1774 (inclusive) comprised some 60 per cent of all English book exports’ (Raven, 185). New England absorbed the greatest share of these imports in the first half of the century; from 1751 to 1780, other colonies (particularly Virginia and Maryland) accounted for a rising proportion. London wholesalers sent large shipments to colonial traders, including to small general merchants as well as dedicated booksellers and printer-booksellers. The bookshop in Williamsburg, Virginia, for example, counted more imported books than domestically produced ones in its inventory. Booksellers’ newspaper advertisements proliferated throughout the colonies. Colonial retailers, such as Williamsburg’s William Hunter and Joseph Royle, cultivated relationships with London traders and agents in order to acquire information about new publications and to improve their terms of payment and credit. Distance often led to strained relations, and delayed shipments—and payments—were common. American retailers complained that wholesalers dumped unsaleable London books on the colonial market, or sent books they had not ordered. London wholesalers, moreover, did not typically give American printer-booksellers the same credit terms and discounts that English metropolitan and provincial retailers received. For all the American booksellers’ complaints, imports diversified their stock and connected colonists to the cosmopolitan and intellectual worlds of the imperial capital.
2.3 Reading communities and practices
*Literacy rates increased in most sections of the colonies during the 18th century, although book ownership (except for almanacs and other cheap books) remained primarily the province of the affluent and the learned. Studies of signature literacy—an imprecise measure of writing ability, which lagged behind reading ability in a society where reading was taught earlier in life—offer several conclusions. Colonists arrived in America with high levels of literacy, compared with contemporary European rates. For example, 69 per cent of male indentured servants emigrating from London between 1718 and 1759 signed their contracts, as did 34 per cent of female indentured servants. Among male German immigrants, required to take loyalty oaths in Philadelphia, 60 per cent signed their names in the 1730s, a rate that rose above 80 per cent after 1760. Increasing literacy rates were the predominant pattern. This was most evident in New England, where 60 per cent of men could sign their names in 1660, 70 per cent by 1710, 85 per cent by 1760, and 90 per cent by 1790. Women’s literacy rates began significantly lower (45 per cent in the early 18th century), but narrowed the gap with men’s by the 1780s. Elsewhere in the colonies, literacy rates were lower, but increased during the century. Anticipating laws that would become more prevalent in the 19th century, several colonies began to proscribe instruction in writing for African-American slaves, fearing insurrection or escape: South Carolina after 1740, Georgia fifteen years later.
Estate inventories suggest that the typical household library was tiny, containing only a bible or psalter and occasionally a few other books. Bookshops’ most frequent customers, learned and wealthy men, purchased mostly British imprints in an era when the financial risk of reprinting London books dwarfed that of importing a few copies. Cheap books—almanacs, *chapbooks, primers, psalters, and pamphlets—were the exception, produced locally and vended in large quantities even in the colonial hinterlands. The bookshop at Williamsburg sold 4,000 to 6,000 almanacs a year in the 1750s and 1760s, and Franklin estimated that 10,000 copies of Poor Richard’s Almanack sold annually around the mid-century. Franklin’s Philadelphia partner David Hall calculated that the firm printed 141,257 copies of the almanac and 25,735 more in a pocket size, between 1752 and 1765. Such cheap publications were disseminated not only (or not even primarily) by printers and bookshops, but by *chapmen or *colporteurs and through general stores. *Subscription and *circulating libraries also originated in the mid-1700s, offering access to books to members without the cost of purchase.
Especially in emerging colonial cities and towns, reading communities took shape in a variety of social milieus that had English antecedents. In literary salons organized by elite women such as Annis Boudinot Stockton in Princeton, New Jersey, and Hannah Simons Dale in Charleston, South Carolina, women and men circulated their poetry and prose in MS. *Coffee houses became centres for the exchange of news among men, as well as meeting places for private societies that practised cosmopolitan ideals of witty writing and conversation. Like the salons, coteries such as the Tuesday Club of Annapolis, Maryland, and the Schuylkill Fishing Club of Philadelphia fostered the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ separate from official government and religious discourse. Learned institutions also fostered intellectual connections. Colonial America had three colleges (*Harvard, William and Mary, and *Yale) by the early 18th century and five more by 1770. Pioneering learned and scientific societies included the American Philosophical Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge, created in 1769 by the merger of two existing societies. Such institutions subscribed to the transatlantic notion of a ‘republic of letters’, in which free inquiry would counteract the long-standing effects of church and state control. At the same time, evangelicals, influenced by the mid-century Great Awakening, developed their own reading communities, often based in the libraries and homes of local ministers and fuelled by opposition to worldly urban elites and self-consciously polite culture.
Reading practices differed according to the nature of the work and the purposes that Americans brought to their books. Cheap and ephemeral texts, such as almanacs, newspapers, and pamphlets, might be ‘read to death’. For books, the oldest and still strongest meanings were spiritual: whether the Bible, Bunyan’s *Pilgrim’s Progress, or Christian biographies, printed works possessed the power to transform the reader’s inner self. An alternative, newer mode of reading emphasized secular rationalism, generally against the perceived excesses of evangelical enthusiasm. By the mid-18th century, literary sentimentalism offered a semblance of common ground between the evangelical and rationalist models, blending their shared emphasis on moral formation. The popularity of Samuel *Richardson’s Pamela suggested the emergent power of this model, even as it engendered enduring debates about the potentially pernicious effects of novel-reading.
The Revolution did not immediately transform Americans’ reading, although it inspired the first indigenous bestseller, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776), and helped swell the number of American newspapers from 23 to 58. The war suspended the transatlantic trade in books and most other commodities. Printers struggled to survive, and membership in the trade was marked by high turnover. An emergent colonial reprint business, begun by the Scottish-born Philadelphia printer Robert *Bell in the 1760s, collapsed. Instead, the war politicized printers, whose circumscribed output still included newspapers, pamphlets, government documents, and *broadsides. Independence freed printers from the royal *copyright on bible publication: petitioned by Presbyterian clergymen, a committee of the Continental Congress recommended the publication of an American edition of the Bible. After Congress fled from Philadelphia, the Scottish émigré printer *Aitken undertook the venture on his own, producing five successful editions of the New Testament. Unfortunately for Aitken, he decided to print the entire Bible just before the war ended—and the resumption of British imports undercut his initiative with cheaper bibles. As they had a century earlier, economic realities proved more powerful than either political restrictions or their demise.
3 The 19th century: print cultures in the expanding nation
3.1 The emergence of American publishing
In the aftermath of the Revolution, the new nation’s publishing trade originated primarily in reprints of familiar works, not in the production of new books written by Americans. Aitken’s failure did not deter other printers from attempting American imprints of British books. Thomas Dobson, an Edinburgh clerk, was sent by his bookseller employer to Philadelphia to open a bookshop for imported stock. Dobson diverted much of the proceeds to creating his own publishing enterprise, which included American editions of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1788) and the eighteen-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica (1789–98). Isaiah *Thomas, a Worcester, Massachusetts, newspaper printer, began his publishing career with reprints of small *children’s books (see 15), then turned to the project that had bedevilled Aitken. Indeed, in the 1790s numerous American printers worked on editions of the Bible. The profusion of bibles, in a variety of *formats from *folio to *duodecimo with market niches for diverse customers, provided the first evidence that American reprints could supplant British imports.
That recognition became the genesis of a publishing trade in the US. Some publishers, such as Dobson, had begun as importer-booksellers. Others, such as the Irish émigré Mathew *Carey, started as printers, went into bookselling, and parlayed their capital into publishing (assuming the financial risks of production). Between the 1790s and the 1820s, these publishers devised a variety of mechanisms to address the common challenges of financing, distribution, and competition. At a series of *book fairs following the *Frankfurt and *Leipzig models, held from 1802 to 1806, publishers gathered from around the nation to exchange and sell unbound stock to one another in larger quantities and at greater discounts than ordinary retailers received. Publishing by *subscription, a method that in the US dated back to the 18th century, helped ensure sales in advance of production, especially for expensive illustrated or multi-volume works. In collaboration with the itinerant bookseller Mason Locke Weems, Carey used this method to redirect the southern and western markets for such works away from British imports and towards his own productions. Weems’s contacts with local retail booksellers in these regions also provided Carey with a network of ‘adjutants’ for his cheaper books. Co-publication, an arrangement whereby multiple publishers jointly assumed the risks by purchasing a percentage of an edition in *sheets, offered an alternative in the 1820s to cut-throat competition for popular British works. Beginning in 1824, publishers promoted *trade sales, at which booksellers purchased works at auction. Trade sales helped establish uniform wholesale prices for books, encouraging differentiation within the book trades, with wholesaling and distribution distinct from publishing.
Meanwhile, religious publishers pioneered new forms of mass production and distribution. Non-denominational, evangelical organizations such as the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North-America (founded in 1787) and the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (1803) contracted with printers to produce books and *tracts, to be distributed to the worthy poor by volunteer travelling agents. The Philadelphia Bible Society (1808) and the New England Tract Society (1814) went a step further, becoming large-scale publishers as well as distributors. Their business model combined economy of scale in production with decentralized, local distribution. Taking advantage of the new technology of *stereotyping, the Philadelphia society produced bibles in the tens of thousands; a network of auxiliary societies distributed them across Pennsylvania. The national evangelical publishing concerns founded over the next two decades—the *American Bible Society (1815), the *American Sunday-School Union (1824), and the *American Tract Society (1825)—employed similar methods. These religious publishers stood at the forefront of technological change and mass communication in the US. To produce their huge print runs, they relied upon stereotyping before the commercial publishers did; moreover, by the 1820s the American Bible Society had also invested heavily in steam-powered printing (using the new Treadwell press) and mechanized papermaking (with *Fourdrinier machines) (see 10, 11). Even as the societies’ nationwide distribution networks launched what would later be recognized as modern communications, their message was explicitly anti-commercial. The book market, they argued, spread the gospel of greed and immorality in the form of vicious literature, which only an equally vigorous programme of religious publishing could combat. The religious societies’ early business model proved difficult to sustain. As local auxiliaries lost their energy by the 1840s, the American Tract Society and the American Bible Society employed colporteurs to distribute their books. Although the major national societies continued to prosper throughout the century, their centralized dominance of the field gave way to smaller, denominational publishing concerns.
By the 1830s, commercial firms such as Philadelphia’s *Carey & Lea and New York’s *Harper & Brothers exemplified a new mode of publishing. Some of the publishers, including the four Harper brothers, had trained as printers, but most—including New York’s G. P. *Putnam, Boston’s W. D. Ticknor and J. T. Fields, and Philadelphia’s J. B. *Lippincott—had never been printers but came to publishing from other businesses. These publishers became book-trade entrepreneurs, coordinating the supply of raw materials and the physical production of printed, bound works. A few publishers conducted most of these operations themselves; most famously, the Harpers erected a seven-storey factory in 1853 after fire destroyed their earlier, more modest operation. Others, such as *Ticknor & Fields, built relationships with local firms specializing in papermaking, *composition, stereotyping, printing, and *bookbinding. By the 1850s, American book publishing was increasingly centralized in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston; Cincinnati had a brief heyday as a western publishing hub. Firms elsewhere were associated with particular genres; for example, Chicago’s *Rand McNally became America’s leading *map publisher late in the century. Yet the eastern cities that gained predominance by the mid-19th century remained the nation’s publishing centres through the 20th.
New technologies facilitated the publishers’ ascendancy and fostered their distinctive identities in the literary marketplace. Stereotype plates became capital, signifying the right to publish a work and discouraging competitors from the expense of producing their own editions. As *case bindings replaced unbound sheets or unadorned *boards, publishers created *house styles to promote brand identification. Among the first to seize this opportunity, the Harpers produced series such as ‘Harper’s Family Library’, intended for wholesome domestic reading, and ‘Harper’s School District Library’, designed to capitalize on the burgeoning public school movement. Both ‘Libraries’ were composed of diverse works, mostly by British authors, unified by a common series name and binding. As promoters of American authorship drew upon the 1840s rhetoric of Manifest Destiny, *Wiley & Putnam advertised native productions in its *‘Library of American Books’ series, which included Melville’s Typee, Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse, and works by Margaret Fuller, Edgar Allan Poe, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Gilmore Simms. Soon thereafter, ‘blue and gold’ clothbound editions of British and American authors helped Ticknor & Fields create a reputation as America’s premier publisher of transatlantic ‘high’ literature.
At the same time that they were organizing the processes of book production, publishers worked to manage their trade and subvert the potential for ruinous competition. In the absence of international copyright treaties, rival editions of popular British authors could lead to falling book prices as publishers sought to undersell one another. This concern led to the extra-legal but widely understood conventions known as ‘the courtesy of the trade’. The primary tenet of trade courtesy stipulated that the first American publisher to announce that it had a foreign work ‘in press’ won the rights to its publication; other publishers were expected to relinquish any plans to publish it. By a second principle, the ‘rule of association’, the publisher that initially reprinted a foreign author’s work could stake a claim to that author’s subsequent works. The system was far from perfect, and participating publishers routinely complained about trade *pirates who failed to obey these unwritten rules, such as the publishers of ‘mammoth weeklies’ in the 1840s and of ‘cheap libraries’ 40 years later. A boom-and-bust economy exacerbated the precariousness of publishing. J. P. *Jewett published the century’s best seller, Stowe’s *Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1852, but suspended payments and went out of business during a nationwide depression five years later. Ticknor & Fields experienced a series of reorganizations over three decades, overextended its resources in the 1860s and 1870s, and ultimately merged in 1878 with another publisher to form what would become *Houghton Mifflin Co.
Attempts to organize were more successful in niche publishing markets than in the general trade. The short-lived *American Book Trade Association of the 1870s, which included most of the leading publishers as well as dozens of smaller ones, sought to establish uniform discounts to vendors in an effort to regulate prices and combat ‘underselling’ by agents and retailers. In more specialized areas, consolidation reigned by the end of the century. Schoolbook publishers formed their own Board of Trade in 1870; after its collapse, the four largest firms created a syndicate and eventually merged into the *American Book Company, which contemporaries believed controlled 50–90 per cent of the textbook market. *Music publishers, who flourished in large and small cities across the nation, formed a Board of Music Trade in 1855 to curtail their own tendencies towards ruthless price-cutting and discounting. By 1890, Boston’s *Ditson & Co. had swallowed most of the other leading firms from Philadelphia to San Francisco, achieving a measure of industry-wide control unparalleled in any other part of American publishing.
3.2 Disseminating the industrial book
No matter how effectively they centralized book production, American trade publishers needed to distribute their wares to far-flung customers across a geographically expanding nation. To accomplish this, they created networks to exchange information, goods, and credit. The traditional means of sharing information by letters was supplemented by specialized periodicals, notably the magazine that began as Norton’s Literary Advertiser (1851) and became *Publishers Weekly (1873). Advertising was promoted through *publisher’s lists and catalogues, with *posters and flyers for new books, and in newspapers and periodicals. From the 1850s, the major firms’ own general-interest magazines (such as Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly) became important venues for reviewing and advertising their books. Books were distributed by express companies and the US postal system, which maintained special rates for printed matter. To coordinate both supply and credit, publishers relied increasingly on wholesale book dealers, known as jobbers. These dealers, such as the *American News Company and *McClurg & Co., distributed publishers’ books to booksellers, who received a discount on the stated retail price. Trade sales, which persisted as a forum for auctioning stock, declined in importance by the 1870s as the larger publishing houses and jobbers dispatched travelling agents (‘commercial travellers’) to visit local retailers. Publishers in specialized areas developed distinct distribution systems: for instance, *sheet music and scores were sold primarily in music shops, and schoolbook publishers hired sales agents to secure adoptions by county and state school districts. Especially after the Civil War, subscription publishing firms sent sales agents across the nation and even into remote towns and mining camps to vend their wares. In rural areas where bookshops were few, customers purchased books in general stores, ordered them by mail or by subscription, or borrowed them from libraries and other associations devoted to collective ownership. None of these modes of book distribution offered what bookshops in cities and towns made available: the fullest range of trade publishers’ titles. However, unlike 20th-century bookshops, these urban shops were not places for browsing; organized by publisher rather than by subject, the stock was shelved behind the counter, with sales clerks serving and advising readers.
As Americans embraced the pleasures of reading many books just once (what scholars have termed ‘extensive reading’) alongside the familiar custom of studying the same ones (such as the Bible) again and again (‘intensive reading’), the collective ownership of books remained an attractive alternative to individual purchase. Social libraries—voluntary associations founded by members’ purchase of shares—blossomed after the Revolution, flourishing until the 1830s. More than 2,100 such libraries were created between 1786 and 1840, but many did not survive their first decade as their collections stagnated and members sought new books elsewhere. Created to shape appropriate reading tastes, social libraries generally did not collect the *novels and *romance fiction that readers most desired. Commercial circulating libraries, often operated by booksellers, filled that gap, offering readers the opportunity to borrow recent, popular fiction for a fee. Other sorts of libraries, founded for specific segments of urban society such as *apprentices, mechanics, and merchants, were torn between their founders’ mission to provide morally and socially edifying fare and their fee-paying members’ wishes for popular literature. By 1875 the largest of these, the New York Mercantile Library, boasted 160,000 books to cater to its members’ tastes. The crusade for ‘proper’ reading persisted in Sunday school libraries, which increased in number from 2,000 in 1850 to more than 34,000 two decades later, and in the tax-supported school district libraries that began in Massachusetts and New York in the 1830s and 1840s.
Local governments launched the movement for tax-supported public libraries, the first being the *Boston Public Library (1854). The movement spread slowly, but by 1894, according to one study, there were 566 free public libraries with collections of 1,000 books or more. The earliest professional librarians were men associated with learned libraries, such as Joseph Green Cogswell of New York’s *Astor Library. Although the *Smithsonian Institution’s C. C. *Jewett first imagined the possibility of a *national union catalogue based on the published catalogues of many American libraries as early as the 1850s, standardization in *cataloguing and collection practices proved elusive. The *American Library Association and the American Library Journal were founded in 1876, but professional librarianship took several more decades to catch up with the spread of public libraries across the nation.
American learned culture in the first half of the 19th century relied heavily on its better-developed European counterparts. Aspiring scholars studied in German universities; and scholarly books continued overwhelmingly to be imported from Europe, even as American publishers reprinted European works in most other genres. The transatlantic moorings of learned culture gradually shifted as the US developed its own sites for the production and dissemination of knowledge: discipline-specific scholarly periodicals, colleges, seminaries, and research universities along the German model. The US government played a significant role in publishing the fruits of American science and exploration, in such works as the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge (1848–1916), the seven-volume geological surveys of the 40th parallel (1870–80), and John Wesley Powell’s geological and ethnographic studies of the American west. At the same time, commercial publishers created niches by catering to the learned professions: *Little, Brown, & Co., and Baker, Voorhis, & Co. in law books; Lea & Blanchard (successors to Mathew Carey’s firm), William Wood & Co., and P. Blakiston’s Sons in medical books.
3.3 Literacy and modes of reading
Across the century, literacy rates rose in tandem with the spread of public schooling, especially in the northeast and northwest (today’s midwest). Tax-supported schools dated from the 17th century in Massachusetts because individuals’ ability to read the Bible had been central to Puritan theology, but their operation had been sporadic and decentralized. After the Revolution, proponents of education added a republican argument (the need for an educated citizenry) to the older religious one, and reformers such as Henry Barnard and Horace Mann proposed statewide school systems to coordinate teacher training and ensure educational standards across economically and ethnically diverse populations. The number of public schools grew rapidly in New England and western states (such as Ohio) populated by New England emigrants. Few southern states or localities established public schooling before the Civil War, both because wealthy planters resisted paying to educate poorer white farmers’ children and because populations were widely dispersed. In 1840, the first time the US census enumerated school attendance, 38.4 per cent of white children aged 5–19 went to public or private school for some portion of the year; by 1860, attendance had increased to 58.6 per cent. Beneath these aggregate numbers lay significant regional variation: more than four-fifths of children in New England attended school in 1840, but fewer than one-fifth of children in the south did. Similarly, although literacy was nearly universal in New England, nearly 20 per cent of white southerners reported an inability to read or write. Most southern states proscribed teaching enslaved African-Americans to read or write; an estimated 5–10 per cent of slaves were literate. After the Civil War, when southern states created public school systems and former slaves sought education for themselves and their children, the ability of African Americans to write (and, hence, presumably to read) increased rapidly: from 30 per cent in 1880 to 55 per cent two decades later.
By the mid-19th century, several conceptions about reading predominated in the US. The oldest, grounded in evangelical Protestantism, gained new energy with the Second Great Awakening, the rise of reform movements such as temperance and abolition, and the tract societies’ and religious publishers’ prodigious output. Evangelicals argued for literacy and reading, but against reading the wrong books: fiction, adventure stories, and irreligious material. A second ideology, linked to the public-school movement, emphasized the civic value of literacy. Equally, mass immigration led educators and civic leaders to proclaim the need to Americanize the ‘foreign element’. A third mode—reading for ‘self-culture’, to use William Ellery Channing’s term—sprang from the middle-class emphasis on self-improvement and character development. In such institutions as lyceums, lecture series, and debating societies, women and men sought intellectual and moral improvement from one another and from lecturers and authors such as Emerson. A fourth mode increasingly separated self-improvement from its earlier religious foundation: it had a transatlantic, cosmopolitan vision that developed primarily after the Civil War and prefigured 20th-century literary publishers and book clubs. Books and learning in this model implied or conferred a social and cultural cachet as well as knowledge. Against all these models stood reading purely for pleasure, which expanded with the proliferation of inexpensive books and the spread of libraries. However, commentators continued to lament the corrupting or subversive potential of entertaining reading, especially on impressionable segments of society such as women and the young.
Americans read in a variety of settings and for diverse purposes, connected to individual and collective identities. The widening availability of books, more leisure time (at least within and above the middling classes), and enhanced lighting (oil lamps and, later, electric lights) all increased the opportunities for home reading at night as well as by day. Although elementary instruction moved from households into schools, Americans still probably read more at home than anywhere else. Publishers capitalized on that transformation by marketing books in editions designed for parlour display as well as for everyday perusal. Shared reading experiences, whether the Bible on Sundays or secular works read aloud, reinforced family bonds. In schools and colleges, especially those for young women, reading contributed to the intellectual and political formation of individuals who challenged conventional constraints. Biographies of learned and eminent women encouraged their readers to imagine intellectual and social possibilities outside ‘women’s sphere’, and so did many other genres: belles-lettres, history, travel literature, even fiction. In the last quarter of the century, the home-study programme of the Chautauqua movement sponsored or inspired thousands of reading circles and study clubs. In these settings, women enjoyed the sorts of opportunities for self-improvement that men had long found in debating societies and mercantile associations.
Depending on the books and the circumstances, reading could strengthen national identity or promote other collective sentiments. For example, reading societies in the north before and after the Civil War instilled a sense of racial and social pride among middle-class African-Americans, who sought at once to assert their membership in the national mainstream and to challenge its assumptions about black people’s capacity for education. Foreign-language publications always played a similar, dual role for their first- and second-generation American readers. From their origins in colonial Pennsylvania, German-language presses followed German-speaking Americans as far west as St Louis. Rather than form a unified German-American identity, these presses promoted various senses of belonging such as to religious, literary, and learned groups, as well as to a vernacular culture. For other immigrants, reading promoted both Americanization and home ties. The Yiddish press published editions of European and American books, and America’s 23 Yiddish periodicals had a circulation of 808,000 by 1910. For immigrant central and eastern European Jews, as for newly arrived Italians and many others, access to American printed works in their native languages became a tool for creating ethnic identity and community.
4 1890–1950: modern business and cultural capital
4.1 Trends in publishing and marketing
In some respects, the history of book production, distribution, and consumption between 1890 and 1950 is one of continuity with the previous period: the processes of urbanization, industrialization, and technological change that confronted publishers with opportunities and challenges had been under way for decades, along with the rise in the educational level of American readers. Within those long-term trends, however, particular developments altered conditions for print producers, mediators, and consumers in the first half of the 20th century. The influx of non-English-speaking immigrants, the growth of mass entertainment, the increase in leisure time for some workers as well as for the middle classes, and new forms of advertising and display simultaneously strengthened and threatened the place of print in American life. More books, produced more cheaply and efficiently, were available to more people, but so was a wider array of competing commodities and diversions. Publishers and readers alike responded by negotiating various compromises between acceptance of modern business values and the preservation of a realm for the book that appeared to be above the market.
By the 1890s, the innovations of the preceding 50 years in papermaking (see 10) and printing (see 11) had dramatically increased American publishers’ output. Of course, the term ‘publishers’ conceals a range of enterprises, including the *dime novel *paperbacks of *Street & Smith, reprint volumes such as George P. Munro’s ‘Seaside Library’, the mainstream fiction issued by established firms like Harper, and the *collected editions of venerated American writers produced by Houghton Mifflin in variably priced sets. Slim volumes of verse—the products of *self-publishing, or inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement—made poetry available to readers apart from weightier collections from *Macmillan or *Stokes. These various formats in turn created and reinforced differences in the cultural expectations surrounding a given book—whether it seemed ephemeral or permanent, serious or frivolous, entertaining or trashy.
Among the still-powerful trade houses in the first decades of the 20th century were those that had sustained the ethos of the ‘gentleman publisher’ from their inception: these included *Holt, Charles *Scribner’s Sons, Harper & Brothers, Houghton Mifflin, Putnam, and D. *Appleton. They generally remained committed, along with making a profit, to supplying American readers with books that, in the publishers’ judgement, possessed literary merit or social utility. Thus, Henry Holt personally oversaw the compilation of The Home Book of Verse (1912), edited by Burton E. Stevenson, while putting his resources into such ‘serious’ authors as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Robert Frost, John Dewey, and Stuart P. Sherman; Charles Scribner published Henry James, George Santayana, and Edith Wharton, but refused a novel of Arnold Bennett’s because of its ‘unpleasant sordid details’ (Madison, 199). Many of these firms maintained the ‘courtesy of the trade’ by refusing to lure authors away from their competitors. As had been true for earlier figures such as Fields, however, ideological principles coexisted with, and sometimes served, business priorities. By the turn of the century, the spread of a national market, the volatility of Wall Street, and the aggressive business climate of the late 19th century allowed the book industry to expand, but also heightened the risk that output would fall victim to overproduction, inadequate distribution, or price-cutting at the point of sale. As the older trade publishers, in need of capital, searched urgently for an elusive financial guarantee for their products, they adopted many modern commercial practices they disdained in their role as public servants.
Chief among these was the introduction of professionalization into what had been family-run houses. In 1896 the Harper brothers, out of money, lost control of the company to the financier J. P. *Morgan. Subsequently, the entrepreneur Colonel George Harvey, with Morgan’s blessing, took over the firm and reorganized it along lines that had already revolutionized railroad operations and steel production: he introduced separate departments for specialized functions and installed middle-level managers to run them. In 1908, under George Brett, the American branch of Macmillan became the first house in the US to establish a separate higher education division. Capitalizing on the concerns of parents and educators, in 1919 Brett also instituted the first children’s book department (see 15). At the same time, publishers sold off unprofitable parts of their business: *Dodd, Mead parted with the firm’s bookshop in 1910 and its periodical, The Bookman, in 1917. Along with such structural changes, several trade houses vied with cheap reprint libraries by offering their own inexpensive series, such as the ‘Modern Student’s Library’ (Scribner) and *‘Everyman’s Library’ (*Dutton). They also adopted their competitors’ distribution methods, selling books through subscription agents or via the mails. The *limited-edition set provided another way in which trade publishers learned to lock customers into a multi-volume purchase—one that carried the promise of literary culture. Such ‘gentlemanly’ individuals as Holt, Brett, and Houghton Mifflin’s Horace Scudder remained committed to fulfilling that promise—hence, their willingness to publish poetry or criticism at a loss—but they did so in part because they understood that distinguishing their firms from reprint houses and producers of cheap fiction had its own marketing value.
In their efforts to rationalize production and distribution, late 19th- and early 20th-century publishers also tried to gain control over the price of books. The imposition of international copyright protection in 1891 and the consequent blow to piracy was one source of price stability. But price-cutting in shops remained a problem for mainstream firms. The usual practice of the period was to offer retail booksellers a 40 per cent discount on trade titles, which they then marked up for sale. By 1900, however, some bookshops and department stores were offering customers a bargain by charging less than the standard markup. To counter that tactic, the American Publishers’ Association and the *American Booksellers Association devised a ‘net pricing system’ (modelled on Britain’s *Net Book Agreement) that prohibited publishers from distributing titles to price-cutters. R. H. Macy’s legal challenge to net pricing, which the Supreme Court upheld in 1913, required publishers to accept discounting and the uncertain profits it entailed. Subsequent efforts in the 1930s and 1940s to make retailers observe fair trade contracts proved largely unsuccessful.
Modern advertising methods were also used to increase revenues: instead of relying on sober announcements of a firm’s new books for the season, some publishers tried promotional campaigns for particular titles. Both Publishers Weekly and the monthly magazines affiliated with individual publishing houses were sites for such undertakings, although many publishers before World War I remained convinced that books were different from other commodities and that advertising did not result in greater sales. After the war, that attitude persisted in some quarters, but not in others. Such figures as Albert *Boni and Horace Liveright (of *Boni & Liveright), Richard Simon and Max Schuster (of *Simon & Schuster), Alfred A. *Knopf, Bennett Cerf, Donald Klopfer, Harold Guinzburg, John Farrar and Stanley Rinehart (of *Farrar & Rinehart), and Benjamin *Huebsch—mainly university-educated, Jewish New Yorkers—founded new houses in the 1910s and 1920s or assumed editorial positions that changed the tone of the book business. The relatively prosperous postwar economy and the attendant growth of mass consumer culture fuelled their success. It was also encouraged by the consolidation of a common school curriculum and the rising numbers of high school and university graduates in the same years: a consequent increase in literacy complemented a growing interest in mastering the specialized knowledge that seemed essential for success.
In this climate, new publishers (benefiting from new business methods) had fewer qualms than their predecessors about treating books as consumer goods. When Simon & Schuster started their firm in 1924, they pioneered a number of effective entrepreneurial techniques. The partners sought authors to create MSS they thought would sell; they allocated more money for advertising than other publishers; they developed a recognizable logo and company identity; and they handled each title as if it were ‘a separate business venture’. They also surveyed customers by placing return postcards in their books. In 1927, they promoted Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, as Fortune magazine noted, with an ‘excitement’ that was ‘impossible to escape’ (Rubin, Middlebrow Culture, 246, 249). The campaign included sales incentives for bookshops, direct-mail solicitation, a money-back guarantee, and a series of well-placed advertisements that fed readers’ desire for knowledge and prestige. Trade publishers like Schuster still thought of themselves as cultural missionaries, but there was a heightened tension between that ideal and the successful marketing of books.
Similarly, Knopf, who founded his own firm in 1915, distinguished it by his commitment to cosmopolitanism, literary quality, and good design. The Knopfs brought the best contemporary writers to American audiences. Insisting that they believed in publishing meritorious works whether or not they would sell, they were particularly hospitable to European literary modernism. Knopf nevertheless was aggressive in marketing books, stamping a recognizable personality on them: he put men in sandwich boards to publicize Floyd Dell’s Moon-Calf (1921), was the first publisher to use photographs in testimonial advertisements, and devised slogans that resembled those for household products.
New publishers’ openness to modern promotional methods matched a shift in attitude among some typographers and printers. Like their European colleagues, proponents of a streamlined modernist aesthetic hailed machine typesetting as the means to efficiency and beauty. Yet the great American typographers and designers of this period—C. P. *Rollins, *Updike, *Cleland, *Rogers, *Goudy, *Dwiggins—tended to advocate and practise hand-setting and printing as well as machine production to preserve older printing techniques.
The educational mission of scientific publishers dictated both non-profit or subsidized operations and profit-making enterprises. The audience for certain kinds of technical knowledge was necessarily limited; adjudicating the content of books was the task of scientists, not non-specialist editors. By 1919, Van Nostrand and *Wiley & Sons dominated this field with Macmillan and *McGraw-Hill. University presses, founded around the turn of the century as an alternative to commercial houses, accounted for a small share (about 11 per cent) of new scientific titles; over the next twenty years, the proliferation of journals and of publishing programmes sponsored by professional associations furnished additional non-profit outlets for publicizing scientific discoveries. At the same time, both in the interwar years and with greater urgency as the atomic age dawned, trade houses produced volumes of popular science for general audiences.
Similarly, Protestant religious publishing involved a mixture of institutions. Some church-owned publishing firms (e.g. *Methodist Book Concern) issued devotional and inspirational texts. Steady sellers, such as Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health, came from church-related publishers. The market for bibles repackaged in a variety of formats expanded, stimulated by non-profit organizations like the *Gideons. Some commercial, privately owned presses specialized in Protestant subjects, while trade houses maintained religious departments: at Harper’s, its masterful editor Eugene Exman took over in 1935. The 1920s saw a surge of interest in religious titles, which poured forth from all these sources, as well as the invention, in 1921, of Religious Book Week, which broke down the distinction between religious and trade books. Yet some of the most popular volumes, such as Mrs Charles E. Cowman’s locally published Streams in the Desert (1925), evaded commercial account books, enjoying a kind of hidden life among the devout.
4.2 New mediators for a diverse public
In the interwar period, mediators between producers and consumers of books—book club judges, literary critics and journalists, librarians, and educators—grappled with a set of tensions related to publishers’ ambivalence toward commercialism: they sought to juggle a desire to influence large numbers of readers with an awareness that popular appeal would undermine their own stature and the prestige of the book itself.
At the mid-century, publishers distributed directly to readers about half the hardcover books sold in the US. The other half reached purchasers through retail outlets: not only department stores such as Macy’s but also large chains like *Doubleday, *Kroch’s, and *Brentano’s. Independent bookstores such as the *Hampshire Book Shop and Sunwise Turn, whose proprietors offered advice about good reading, particularly flourished near university campuses. At the same time, even before the paperback revolution of the postwar years, the sale of soft-cover books and *remainders at drugstores and newsstands became common practice.
Within the hardcover trade, however, the *book club provided a new method of distribution perfectly attuned to the period’s cultural preoccupations. Organizations such as the *Book-of-the-Month Club, founded in 1926, sought to satisfy social as well as intellectual aspirations, mediating between ‘high’ culture and consumer desires. Henry Seidel Canby, the longtime head of the Club’s Selecting Committee, undertook a similar role as editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, a periodical he helped found in 1924. As part of an effort to widen and to guide the audience for ‘serious’ novels and non-fiction, Canby and Stuart P. Sherman, his counterpart at the New York Herald Tribune’s Books, sustained a concern for the craft of writing, taking a dim view of modernist experimentation while adapting literary criticism to the consumer-friendly format of a weekly *tabloid.
Librarians, too, balanced acting as cultural authorities against their interest in building systems and institutions that would serve diverse populations and varying standards of taste. At the close of the 19th century, the leaders of the American Library Association felt that they were responsible for stocking their shelves with the ‘best’ reading. The reformer Melvil *Dewey ardently promoted that principle, which implicitly relegated most fiction to an inferior status. The rapid proliferation of local libraries between 1900 and 1920 (thanks in large part to *Carnegie’s philanthropy), however, heightened librarians’ concern with library science (see information science). The ALA’s Booklist, created in 1905, was designed to help library professionals systematically identify good books for their growing numbers of patrons. In the 1920s and 1930s, library leaders such as Douglas L. Waples sought to establish their authority on civic grounds, arguing that democracy required the nurturing of ‘enlightened public opinion’. The ALA’s ‘Reading with a Purpose’ campaign reflected that concern, along with anxieties about mass media and materialism; yet its proponents adopted modern advertising techniques to get across their message. Progressive educators, aware of the ‘large foreign element’ in schools, joined library professionals in the belief that inculcating good reading habits would prepare the nation’s children for adult citizenship. Yet librarians continued to struggle among themselves about how much to oppose the public’s overwhelming preference for novels. Despite the official emphasis on ‘purpose’, that preference led most ordinary working librarians to concentrate on providing information rather than shaping taste.
The individuals who developed the nation’s great research libraries after 1900 experienced fewer tensions, because they saw themselves as contributing to the modern advancement of knowledge. That outlook led the Library of *Congress in 1901 to create its own classification system, which promised to accommodate new subject areas more flexibly than *Dewey decimal classification. The standardization of interlibrary loans in 1917 allowed higher education institutions to share materials readily. Two commercial publishers, R. R. *Bowker and H. W. *Wilson, produced bibliographies, the *Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, and other indices for the library market. Under the administration of Herbert *Putnam, the Library of Congress joined in this activity, developing the National Union Catalog in the early 1900s; its publication in the mid-1940s of volumes reproducing its printed catalogue cards was another landmark in LC’s nationalization of support to scholars. At roughly the same time, the *New York Public Library (second in its holdings only to the Library of Congress) embarked on wide-ranging collection-building. Relatively free of the ideological constraints that animated their less cosmopolitan colleagues, the librarians who built the NYPL (especially its Reference Department, which became the Research Libraries in 1966) were committed to acquisitions that reflected the multiplicity of human experience and the unpredictable needs of future scholars. Their democratic outlook and their devotion to wide collecting distinguished them from their European counterparts. A dedication to comprehensiveness also characterized the major academic libraries (e.g. at Harvard, Yale, *Columbia, *Cornell, and the University of *Chicago); by 1939, each of those had amassed more than a million volumes. In the same years, several individuals—among them Henry E. *Huntington, J. P. *Morgan, Jr., and H. C. *Folger—enriched the possibilities for scholarship by founding repositories (the *Huntington Library, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the *Folger Shakespeare Library) to house and build upon great private collections.
4.3 Continuity and community in reading
As producers and mediators of books adapted to the burgeoning, diverse consumer culture of the 20th century, their audiences perpetuated established reading practices while simultaneously endowing print with new significance. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps popularized the term ‘functional literacy’ to denote the skill necessary to read the materials pertinent to daily life. By 1947, when the Census Bureau defined ‘functional illiterates’ as those with fewer than five years of schooling, only 6 per cent of Americans fell into that category, in contrast with 24 per cent in 1910. Book readers were more likely to be from the middle or upper classes than from the working class, and before World War II most people, regardless of income, preferred newspapers and magazines. As Waples and other social scientists had shown in the preceding two decades, a minority of Americans turned to books for self-improvement, pleasure, and (especially during the Great Depression) diversion from daily life. They made meaning by connecting eclectic texts to their experiences within families, religious settings, and classrooms. Although silent reading largely displaced reading aloud as an instructional mode and leisure activity, the social dimension of reading persisted in the ‘literary evening’ and the book group. For both white and African-American women, literary clubs fostered a sense of identity and empowerment, as well as political activism.
5 1950 to the present: the American book in a global economy
5.1 Consolidating the publishing industry
Although technological innovation, ever-proliferating leisure activities, and a more highly educated population remained part of the book’s social environment in the US following World War II, a distinguishing feature of the second half of the 20th century was the repositioning of the book business within a global economy. The war itself contributed to internationalization by involving publishers in efforts to supply American troops abroad with reading material: beginning in 1943, the Council on Books in Wartime, an industry consortium, brought out more than 13,000 titles in lightweight, pocket-size *Armed Services Editions. It also oversaw the issuing of Overseas Editions—volumes aimed at building understanding of the US among Europeans. The project stimulated and prefigured the expansion of American publishing into foreign markets in the immediate postwar period. *Textbooks and works on scientific and technical subjects dominated the vigorous export trade in the 1950s and 1960s, and the sale of translation rights also increased dramatically. American firms subsequently developed independent subsidiaries abroad—32 by the 1980s. At the same time, European publishers such as *Oxford University Press, *Elsevier, and *Springer opened offices in the US.
The impetus for the internationalization of American publishing was partly political, given the Cold War perception that America needed to strengthen its cultural presence around the world. For the most part, however, the US book industry’s global expansion was the result of a quest for greater profits—a fact that underscored its similarity to other businesses. Still, many of the dominant figures in 1950s and 1960s trade publishing maintained a sense of obligation to turn out good books—even though initial printings of non-fiction volumes tended not to make money—and cultivated a personal tone with authors and employees.
The relationship between books and other means of communication changed after 1950. Whereas many publishers had sought to maintain the book’s position on higher cultural ground than that occupied by film, radio, and recorded music, the sale of *Random House to the Radio Corporation of America in 1965 symbolically recast print as simply one of several forms of entertainment available to the American public. Moreover, by the 1970s the sale of *subsidiary rights—not only to *book clubs or to the booming *paperback houses, but also to Hollywood or television—had become the major source of some firms’ revenue, so that, far from fearing competition from other leisure activities, many publishing executives now depended on those activities for their survival.
In the last decades of the 20th century, media conglomerates—several based in Europe—continued to absorb formerly independent publishers, both exclusively trade operations and those houses with mass-market paperback divisions. Scribner merged in 1984 with Macmillan, which was in turn bought by Paramount nine years later; *Bertelsmann purchased *Bantam, Doubleday, and *Dell in 1986; Rupert Murdoch acquired Harper in 1987. Christian publishing was not exempt from this pattern: *Zondervan became part of HarperCollins in 1988. More recent industry mergers include Viacom’s purchase of Paramount in 1994, the amalgamation of its publishing interests under the name of Simon & Schuster, and Simon & Schuster’s reorganization as part of CBS Corporation in 2006. In 2002, the eight largest firms controlled more than half of American book sales. At the same time, the production of new titles, especially in categories such as religion and fiction, increased sharply: between 1992 and 1997 the book industry grew at a rate of 34 per cent.
The industry’s volatility increased the pressure on editors to sign up titles that would make money, with a corresponding expansion of the role of the *literary agent. Owners of the new conglomerates, indifferent to editorial freedom and cultural ideals, required high profits from each book and a concentration on big sellers. Paperback publishers, who in the 1970s and 1980s had discovered the lucrativeness of issuing original titles in such genres as romance fiction, contributed to the competitive atmosphere by bidding up the cost of reprint rights as well. The rise of media conglomerates has been blamed for a marked decline in American publishing, measured by the quality of the industry’s product. The complaint echoed the lament of designers and typographers, adjusting to the development in the 1970s of *photocomposition and *offset printing, that labour-saving automation was destroying aesthetic standards.
Some observers have challenged those assumptions, arguing that the book business needed to overcome inefficiencies. Moreover, independent publishers have retained a significant economic and cultural role into the 21st century. According to the Book Industry Study Group, the number of small firms in 2005 was higher than ever. There is room, still, for the limited edition of poetry and for *fine printing, typified by the Black Sparrow and the Arion presses; even within the trade, houses such as Knopf strive for excellence in design. The spread of identity politics in the 1960s created niche markets for houses publishing Hispanic and African-American literature (such as Arte Publico and Broadside Press). Evangelical publishers market works in Spanish to reach their multicultural followers. Outside the commercial sector, university presses and other entities such as the New Press, which André Schiffrin founded in 1990, uphold their mandate to bring new knowledge to the reading public. Even the disaffected former Random House editor Jason Epstein conceded in 2001 that, in absolute numbers (rather than as a percentage of total output), more ‘valuable’ books were being published than ever before. Yet these trends and the diversity they preserve do not counteract the disproportionate influence of the media giants on the choices available to American readers.
Although internationalization and mergers also affected scientific and educational publishing, the nature of the subjects and their exponents exerted a visible effect on the content of books. In the 1980s many smaller companies disappeared; by the end of the decade, *Macmillan, *Harcourt, and Simon & Schuster owned close to half of the textbook trade. Subsequently, the British conglomerate *Pearson, which acquired Simon & Schuster’s educational operation in 1998, controlled more than one quarter of American textbook production. Yet the stifling of variety has resulted as much from local as from global forces. State-wide adoption committees, especially those in Texas and California, have long wielded power over publishers by requiring that they comply with rules about representations of race, gender, environmental issues, ‘lifestyles’, and similar matters. The most controversial of such stipulations has concerned the presentation of evolution versus creationism. In the 1960s and 1970s, federally funded innovative books for use in biology, physics, and social studies courses provoked attacks from conservative groups because of their ostensible ‘humanism’ and cultural relativism. Left-wing critics, often at odds with one another, have likewise been vocal in assailing the depiction of African-Americans as either idealized or too realistic, too separate or too integrated. The result, some educators charge, is a reduction of the average American textbook to a bland, inoffensive, lowest common denominator calculated to win the biggest market. However, scientific thought has also produced books that serve and reflect the priorities of scientists themselves: reference works such as the Science Citation Index (now online and part of *Thomson Publishing); texts for advanced study synthesizing new research (e.g. James Watson’s Molecular Biology of the Gene, 1965); and trade books such as James Gleick’s Chaos (1987) and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988), popularizing the activities of the scientific community for lay readers. Even as the scholarly journal, in *digitized form, became entrenched, by the 1990s, as the primary means for the circulation of scientific knowledge, the science book had its place in laboratories and living rooms alike.
5.2 Transforming bookselling and libraries
In the postwar period, the forces of consolidation were also at work within institutions disseminating books to readers. The Book-of-the-Month Club became part of Time Inc. in 1977 (later *Time Warner); Bertelsmann became its sole owner in 2007. At the same time, the Selecting Committee virtually vanished from club advertising and was disbanded in 1994. With it went the idea that distance from commercialism was worth maintaining. Yet the Club’s reorganization as part of a conglomerate arguably led to less homogenization as its executives, aiming to reverse declining membership, gave up the pretence of choosing the ‘best’ books for all in favour of targeting particular type of volumes at niche markets.
Retail bookselling developed against the backdrop of postwar suburbanization, evolving from a mix of department store, drugstore, independent, and chain outlets to a business dominated by a few national chains. In the 1960s and 1970s, *Waldenbooks and B. Dalton opened in suburban shopping centres throughout the country. The distinguishing feature of those shops was that their proprietors believed they could sell books in the same way that Kmart, which bought Waldenbooks in 1984, sold socks. Using computer technology, they centralized inventory control. After Crown Books introduced consistent discounting in 1977, both Waldenbooks and B. Dalton followed suit. Independent bookshops responded by imitating the informal atmosphere the chains were creating. At the same time, some stores cultivated specialized clienteles: political activists, children, New Age believers. In the 1990s, the superstore chains (*Barnes & Noble and *Borders were the largest) supplanted mall shops and dealt a fatal blow to many independents. Operating in huge spaces, the superstores welcomed readers with cafes, book talks, discounts, and vast selection. In 1997 the two biggest chains had 43.3 per cent of bookshop sales: by then both publicly traded companies, they wielded unprecedented power over publishers in matters such as pricing and display.
In cultural terms, the consolidations in the book business entailed a repudiation of the genteel aura that had once surrounded Brentano’s or Scribner’s. The function of the bookseller as supplier of literary guidance was largely a casualty of this process; the connection between buying a book and affirming one’s ‘literariness’ grew weaker as well. Arguably, however, the rise of superstores was less detrimental to American culture than was the wave of mergers among publishers: purchasing books became unintimidating and the bookshop a more prominent feature of the retail landscape, encouraging buying of and conversation about books, if not more reading.
Other mediators emerged to guide readers in choosing books. The relocation of literary critics to academia in the 1950s and 1960s reduced the role of the generalist ‘man of letters’. Yet, the more educated readers leaving the nation’s burgeoning universities expanded the audience for the purveyors of expertise in the *New York Review of Books (founded in 1963) and other specialized journals. The creation of *amazon.com in 1995, which inaugurated large-scale Internet retailing, seemed to transfer authority from the critic to the ordinary reader. Despite the loss of face-to-face contact, those who ventured to explore Amazon’s website found personalized recommendations and customer reviews to guide their purchases. In 1996, Oprah Winfrey (the ordinary reader writ large) created bestsellers and revived older titles by choosing them for *Oprah’s Book Club on her television talk show. The American Library Association joined with Winfrey and the publishing industry to donate the club’s selections to community libraries nationwide.
That intervention on the part of librarians to shape America’s reading habits, however, was something of an anomaly by the 1990s. In the years following World War II, library professionals moved even further away from their commitment early in the century to influence readers. The proponents of libraries as information centres rather than book repositories began to be heard. An infusion of federal money, much of which went into computerization, enhanced the emphasis on librarianship as *information science. Although libraries continued to acquire books, in the political climate of the 1960s and 1970s the predominant vision of the institution was of an organization providing its ‘customers’ with knowledge leading to jobs, justice, or a good used car; it also served as a meeting place. The affinities with postwar consumer culture (and hence with the ethos of publishing and bookselling) were clear: the new public library accommodated users looking for a particular item of information, not necessarily for self-cultivation. As with bookshops, this trend did not necessarily signal cultural decline: it got more people into the building, fostered community, and increased book circulation. Within research libraries, the picture was gloomier: budget crises curtailed book purchases in the 1970s. Throughout the succeeding decades, the growth of online databases and inter-library loans continued to reduce the place of periodicals and scholarly monographs in university collections. Undergraduates had to be reminded that the stacks—not just the Internet—contained resources for their work.
5.3 Modern American reading
Greater knowledge and pleasure remained among the chief goals of reading in the postwar period, but the political and cultural developments of those years created opportunities for readers to use books in historically specific ways. The growth of ‘*speed-reading’ among managers and executives testified that the mastery of voluminous printed information seemed increasingly necessary for success in the corporate sector. Conversely, in the 1960s the spirit of the New Left, itself a product, in part, of its participants’ youthful brush with existentialist writers, found expression in reading groups devoted to explorations of radical thought. Similarly, women activists in the 1960s and 1970s drew support from feminist works that, if not necessarily discussed collectively, nevertheless sustained social connections by assuring individuals that they were not alone in their discontent. By the 1980s, women’s literary clubs typically stood aloof from reform agendas; like their predecessors, however, club members derived a sense of community from reading with others.
As the imperatives of personal growth and self-help became more pervasive in American culture, therapeutic language became a hallmark of readers’ remarks about the role of books in their lives. Among the thousands of respondents to the former *poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s invitation to reflect on their ‘favorite poem’, for example, many people spoke of works as wellsprings of insight and healing. Yet encounters with the book still led readers outside the self, into what one subscriber to the Book-of-the-Month Club called ‘enhanced intellectual or spiritual understanding of the meaning of life’ ([Library of Congress,] Survey of Lifetime Readers, 6).
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, investigators (building on librarians’ and sociologists’ studies in the interwar period) conducted periodic surveys to determine Americans’ reading habits. Animated by concerns over the teaching of reading in public schools, and worried about the nation’s future prosperity, researchers repeatedly raised alarms about the fall in the number of citizens who regularly read books. The *National Endowment for the Arts reported that literary reading had dropped in almost every demographic category between 1982 and 1992; in 2004 and again in 2007, the NEA declared that even more precipitate declines jeopardized the prospects for a rich civic life. Yet those who do read books continue to remake texts in the light of their own needs, aspirations, and locations, and to enrich American culture in the process.
5.4 The future of the book
The impact of digitization on the processes of production, distribution, and reading are easy enough to specify in broad outline. In the 1980s and 1990s, the development of editing and design software transformed the preparation of MSS for publication. In the same period, the birth of *desktop publishing and the use of lasers rather than film to reproduce images, followed in the early 1990s by the introduction of digital printing presses, enabled producers to tailor press runs and books themselves to specific markets. This new world of *print-on-demand promises to eliminate the costs of overproduction and overstocking; ordering a book can mean requesting not merely that it be sent to a retailer but, rather, that it be moved from screen to page. The digital revolution has also allowed publishers of conventional books to construct web sites featuring ‘podcasts’ with their authors, distribute textbook supplements electronically, and streamline office and inventory operations. Similarly, the advent of online reference works and electronic catalogues, together with the creation of digitized databases and document collections, enlarged the scope of library holdings and offered patrons greater access and convenience. As already noted, Internet bookselling, complete with its mechanisms for customer feedback, simplified distribution and facilitated direct contact between author, publisher, distributor, and reader.
The rapidity of these changes led publishers and entrepreneurs in the 1990s to predict—and to invest money in—the dominance of the ebook (see 19), especially for scholarly monographs. The prospect was particularly appealing to academic presses because, by 2000, university libraries, faced with the rising costs of periodicals, were buying only about a quarter as many volumes as they had in the 1970s. Commercial publishers—notably Simon & Schuster and Random House—put sizeable funds into ebook development. The bestselling novelist Stephen King tested the waters in 2000 by arranging to sell a novella exclusively to readers who paid $2.50 to download it over the Internet; there were 400,000 requests for it on the first day alone. Yet, in its 2001 report, the *Bowker Annual declared that hopes for electronic publishing had given way to ‘business realities’: consumers were not rushing to curl up with hand-held screens in place of physical books (Bowker Annual, 2002, 18). By the same token, the non-profit History Ebook project, an attempt to issue new and out-of-print scholarship electronically along with university presses’ publication of print versions, struggled to secure sufficient subscriptions from libraries to sustain itself, although it has subsequently achieved stability under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies. Nevertheless publication of books in conventional printed form (at least initially) remains the widely shared preference of academic historians. They are much more enthusiastic about the research possibilities digitization has generated, including the *Google Book Project, which is scanning thousands of works in university libraries and making some entire texts available for online searching.
If the future of the book does not lie exclusively in the electronic format, perhaps the advent of the digital age will ensure the preservation of diversity in American publishing. Epstein’s reflections on the triumph of commercial over literary values in the current book industry end with that hope; he envisions the Internet and related technologies as forces liberating authors and readers from the tyranny of profit-minded publishers and booksellers. Whether or not Epstein’s prophecy proves true, the book is sure to remain connected, as it has always been, to the tensions between democracy and refinement, materialism and spirituality, at the heart of American culture.
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