Major disruptions in the book publishing business

eBook readers -- book publishing business

Ebook readers and potential ebook readers

Ebook readers like Amazon’s Kindle roiled the book publishing business.

Big time.

Ebooks now outsell printed books. We can carry one device with dozens of books, and it weighs less than any one of them would in print. Major bookstore chains went belly up.

But ebooks are hardly the first major disruption in book publishing. The printing press only came along about 700 years ago. It eventually put an end to the scriptoriums that had produced manuscript books for centuries.

Printing put books in the hands of more readers than the scriptoriums ever could, but books remained relatively expensive well into the 20th century.

Selling books by subscription and cheap paperbacks sold in other places besides bookstores revolutionized book publishing. These practices made books available to people who couldn’t otherwise afford books. Or who couldn’t otherwise easily find them.


The Young Book Agent cover -- book publishing businessAs early as the 17th century, authors and publishers sought to insure the success of a book by asking wealthy patrons to subscribe in advance.

In return, the finished book would list all the subscribers’ names. The first illustrated edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost appeared in 1688 with the names of more than 500 well-known and wealthy patrons.

A new model of subscription publishing appeared in the US in the 19th century. But these were cheap books intended for a mass audience.

Instead of dealing with bookstores, publishers hired agents to sell their wares from door to door. As it turns out, most of the agents never made any money for themselves. But they had enough prospect of success to become the subject of a Horatio Alger book.

The agents never had copies of the books themselves. That would have made moving from place to place too awkward by creating too much baggage. And it would have created risks for the publishers that they wouldn’t get adequately paid for the inventory.

Instead, agents carried a collection of samples known variously as canvassing books, specimen books, prospectuses, or salesman’s dummies. They would show the cover (or choices of cover), the title page, and a few sample pages.

Sort of like Amazon’s “look inside” feature for ebooks.

These specimens allowed agents to carry a large inventory. They could offer best sellers in both fiction and non-fiction. They could also offer titles of interest only to a particular segment of the population.

The agents also had testimonials to show customers. The publishers also supplied agents with suggestions for how to sell—both generally and for specific titles.

During the last third of the 19th century, this kind of subscription publishing accounted for two thirds of all book sales. Agents took books to parts of the country that lacked bookstores. Most of the books were written by Americans on American topics and for Americans, so they played an important role in shaping American culture.

Eventually, though, this sales model lost favor. Many people found door-to-door salesmen annoying. Many agents misrepresented their products. Many publishers provided books on cheap paper with flimsy bindings.

Serialized novels

Pickwick Papers original cover -- book publishing industry

Original cover of Dickens’ first novel, published in parts from March 1836 to October 1837

Publishers produced large-scale works in installments as early as the 17th century in order to reduce prices.

When the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1712, it taxed newspapers at a higher rate than pamphlets.

So newspaper publishers started serializing novels as a way to increase their page count and become pamphlets. They continued after a revision of the act took away the loophole.

When Charles Dickens decided to publish Pickwick Papers in monthly installments in 1836, his success started a new publishing craze. Each installment cost only a shilling. When he finished it in 1837, he had the entire work published as a single volume.

Working class people who couldn’t afford the cost of an entire novel could at least come up with a shilling a month.

Most English novels of the Victorian era first appeared in serial form. By the time Dickens died in 1870, magazines had supplanted stand-alone fascicles as the preferred method of publishing serial novels. Magazines could offer installments of two different novels per issue for the same price.

The popularity of serial publication of novels spread to other countries on both sides of the Atlantic. Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in weekly installments before its publication as a complete novel.

Authors frequently issued the first installment of a new work before they had finished writing it. Of course, if the public showed a lack of interest, the author had no need to finish. So to maintain interest, each installment had to end in a cliffhanger.

Publishers paid authors by the line and by the installment. That’s why so many 19th-century novels are so long.

Paperback book publishing business

The history of paperback books began with 16th-century Venetian printer Aldus Mantius. He could print them, but didn’t succeed in selling them.

In the 19th century, British publishers sold paperback books to working class people for a penny. Less than a tenth the price of one installment of Pickwick Papers. And perhaps a tenth of the literary merit.

The books became known as “penny dreadfuls.” They were printed on cheap paper, and the ink came off onto readers’ hands. Respectable society looked down on what they considered trashy literature.

American publishers issued dime novels to a comparable readership.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was a world-wide catastrophe. The book business suffered like most other businesses.

Penguin Books

Penguin Book covers -- paperback book publishing iindustryAccording to a story that may be true, Allen Lane, the chairman of the British publishing house Bodley Head, visited Agatha Christie one weekend in 1935.

While he waited for his train back to London, he looked around for something to read. Finding only penny dreadfuls, he wondered why he couldn’t find good books in a train station.

Bodley Head declined to back his idea for a new series of inexpensive paperbacks, so he put his own money into the founding of Penguin Books.

Lane bought the reprint rights to some successful serious literature by Christie, Ernest Hemmingway, Dorothy Sayers, and others.  Then he tried to persuade businesses other than bookstores to sell the books.

At just two and a half pence apiece, he knew he had to sell 17,000 copies of each title just to break even. But Woolworth’s ordered 63,500 copies. A year after the first Penguin book came off the press, the company had sold more than three million books.

Penguin books were published with the same quality of paper and ink as hardcover books. The covers highlighted the brand more than the author and title of the book. In 1937, the company expanded into non-fiction with its line of Pelican books. It also started to publish original titles in addition to reprints.

The small format of these books meant that they easily fit into pockets. During World War II, the pockets of many British soldiers bulged with them.

Pocket Books

Pocket Book cover -- paperback book publishing businessThe US had only about 500 bookstores in the 1930s, mostly located in the dozen or so largest cities.

Most Americans had no access to them. Most who did couldn’t afford to buy these books. And those who could found bulky and heavy books inconvenient.

Hardcover novels cost $2.50 or more. In today’s currency, that amounts to $40. In contrast, a gallon of gasoline cost a dime and movie tickets cost 20¢.

Robert Fair de Graff headed the reprint division of Doubleday and issued hardcover reprints for as little as 39¢.

Publishers doubted that the public would buy paperback books. De Graff, however, concluded that they would if the books came to them.

The print run for the typical hardcover book, including author royalties, averaged 10,000 and cost the publisher 40¢ per copy. The larger the print run, the less each copy would cost, but with so few bookstores in the US, demand for the books wouldn’t justify a larger one.

Production costs would fall to 10¢ a copy for a print run of 100,000 books, but de Graff couldn’t rely on bookstores and hope to sell that many. So he teamed up with magazine distributors to put books in places like newsstands, drug stores, or bus stations.

With financial backing from Simon & Schuster, he introduced Pocket Books in 1939. They cost only 25¢ and measured a mere four by six inches. Unlike the monochromatic Penguin covers, Pocket Books’ featured eye-catching, colorful illustrations. People who lacked access to a bookstore could easily find Pocket Books.

De Graff selected ten bestsellers and classics for the first ten titles and ordered a first printing of 10,000 copies each. That seems like an ambitious launch for a new concept, but de Graff underestimated demand. Those first 100,000 copies sold out in a week. Within two years Pocket Books sold 17 million books.

More publishers of cheap paperbacks

Fawcett Gold medal cover -- paperback book publishing businessSoon enough, other publishers in both Britain and the US started issuing their own paperbacks. Most notably, the leading hardcover publishers jointly launched Bantam Books and saw great success.

Magazine and comic book publisher Fawcett found itself locked out of publishing its own reprint titles. So it decided to start a series of original fiction called Gold Medal Books.

Established literary authors had no interest in leaving hardcover publishers for cheap paperbacks.

But Writers of genres like romance novels, Westerns, science fiction, detective novels, and thrillers hit the jackpot in writing original books for Fawcett. Fawcett sold more than nine million copies in its first six months.

Meanwhile, Doubleday introduced large-format trade paperbacks with its Anchor Books in 1953. Trade paperbacks enabled publishers to make money from its backlist instead of letting titles go out of print. These books were more durable than the mass market books and still less expensive than hardcover books.

By 1960, profits from publishing paperbacks surpassed hardcover revenue. Soon enough, most major publishers issued books in both hardcover and paperback.

Just in time for ebooks and ebook readers to shake up the industry again.

Agents wanted: subscription publishing in America / Lynne Farrington, University of Pennsylvania Library
How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read / Andrew Shaffer, Mental Floss. April 19, 2014
How the Paperback Novel Changed Popular Literature / Anne Trubek, Smithsonian March 20, 2010
The revolutionary effect of the paperback / Clive Thompson, Smithsonian. May 2013
Robert F. de Graff dies at 86; was Pocket Books founder / Thomas W. Ennis, New York Times. November 3, 1981
Serial novels were the craze in the 19th century / Jocelyn McClurg, Hartford Courant. September 11, 1994

Photo credits:
Ebook readers. Some rights reserved by Cloned Milkmen
Young book agent. Source unknown
Pickwick club. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Penguin crime covers. Fair use from Wikimedia Commons
Pocket books cover Some rights reserved by Tom
Fawcett Gold Medal cover. Fair use from Wikimedia Commons

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