1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bookselling
BOOKSELLING. The trade in books is of a very ancient date. The early poets and orators recited their effusions in public to induce their hearers to possess written copies of their poems or orations. Frequently they were taken down viva voce, and transcripts sold to such as were wealthy enough to purchase. In the book of Jeremiah the prophet is represented as dictating to Baruch the scribe, who, when questioned, described the mode in which his book was written. These scribes were, in fact, the earliest booksellers, and supplied copies as they were demanded. Aristotle, we are told, possessed a somewhat extensive library; and Plato is recorded to have paid the large sum of one hundred minae for three small treatises of Philolaus the Pythagorean. When the Alexandrian library was founded about 300 B.C., various expedients were resorted to for the purpose of procuring books, and this appears to have stimulated the energies of the Athenian booksellers, who were termed βιβλὶων κάπηλοι. In Rome, towards the end of the republic, it became the fashion to have a library as part of the household furniture; and the booksellers, librarii (Cic. D. Leg. iii. 20) or bibliopolae (Martial iv. 71, xiii. 3), carried on a flourishing trade. Their shops (taberna librarii, Cicero, Phil. ii. 9) were chiefly in the Argiletum, and in the Vicus Sandalarius. On the door, or on the side posts, was a list of the books on sale; and Martial (i. 118), who mentions this also, says that a copy of his First Book of Epigrams might be purchased for five denarii. In the time of Augustus the great booksellers were the Sosii. According to Justinian (ii. 1. 33), a law was passed securing to the scribes the property in the materials used; and in this may, perhaps, be traced the first germ of the modern law of copyright.
The spread of Christianity naturally created a great demand for copies of the Gospels and other sacred books, and later on for missals and other devotional volumes for church and private use. Benedict Biscop, the founder of the abbey at Wearmouth in England, brought home with him from France (671) a whole cargo of books, part of which he had “bought,” but from whom is not mentioned. Passing by the intermediate ages we find that previous to the Reformation, the text writers or stationers (stacyoneres), who sold copies of the books then in use—the ABC, the Paternoster, Creed, Ave Maria and other MS. copies of prayers, in the neighbourhood of St Paul’s, London,—were, in 1403, formed into a gild. Some of these “stacyoneres” had stalls or stations built against the very walls of the cathedral itself, in the same manner as they are still to be found in some of the older continental cities. In Henry Anstey’s Munimenta Academica, published under the direction of the master of the rolls, we catch a glimpse of the “sworn” university bookseller or stationer, John More of Oxford, who apparently first supplied pupils with their books, and then acted the part of a pawnbroker. Anstey says (p. 77), “The fact is that they (the students) mostly could not afford to buy books, and had they been able, would not have found the advantage so considerable as might be supposed, the instruction given being almost wholly oral. The chief source of supplying books was by purchase from the university sworn stationers, who had to a great extent a monopoly. Of such books there were plainly very large numbers constantly changing hands.” Besides the sworn stationers there were many booksellers in Oxford who were not sworn; for one of the statutes, passed in the year 1373, expressly recites that, in consequence of their presence, “books of great value are sold and carried away from Oxford, the owners of them are cheated, and the sworn stationers are deprived of their lawful business.” It was, therefore, enacted that no bookseller except two sworn stationers or their deputies, should sell any book being either his own property or that of another, exceeding half a mark in value, under a pain of imprisonment, or, if the offence was repeated, of abjuring his trade within the university.
“The trade in bookselling seems,” says Hallam, “to have been established at Paris and Bologna in the 12th century; the lawyers and universities called it into life. It is very improbable that it existed in what we properly call the dark ages. Peter of Blois mentions a book which he had bought of a public dealer (a quodam publico mangone librorum); but we do not find many distinct accounts of them till the next age. These dealers were denominated stationarii, perhaps from the open stalls at which they carried on their business, though statio is a general word for a shop in low Latin. They appear, by the old statutes of the university of Paris, and by those of Bologna, to have sold books upon commission, and are sometimes, though not uniformly, distinguished from the librarii, a word which, having originally been confined to the copyists of books, was afterwards applied to those who traded in them. They sold parchment and other materials of writing, which have retained the name of stationery, and they naturally exercised the kindred occupations of binding and decorating. They probably employed transcribers; we find at least that there was a profession of copyists in the universities and in large cities.”
The modern system of bookselling dates from soon after the introduction of printing. The earliest printers were also editors and booksellers; but being unable to sell every copy of the works they printed, they had agents at most of the seats of learning. Antony Koburger, who introduced the art of printing into Nuremberg in 1470, although a printer, was more of a bookseller; for, besides his own sixteen shops, we are informed by his biographers that he had agents for the sale of his books in every city of Christendom. Wynkyn de Worde, who succeeded to Caxton’s press in Westminster, had a shop in Fleet Street.
The religious dissensions of the continent, and the Reformation in England under Henry VIII. and Edward VI., created a great demand for books; but in England neither Tudor nor Stuart could tolerate a free press, and various efforts were made to curb it. The first patent for the office of king’s printer was granted to Thomas Berthelet by Henry VIII. in 1529, but only such books as were first licensed were to be printed. At that time even the purchase or possession of an unlicensed book was a punishable offence. In 1556 the Company of Stationers was incorporated, and very extensive powers were granted in order that obnoxious books might be repressed. In the following reigns the Star Chamber exercised a pretty effectual censorship; but, in spite of all precaution, such was the demand for books of a polemical nature, that many were printed abroad and surreptitiously introduced into England. Queen Elizabeth interfered but little with books except when they emanated from Roman Catholics, or touched upon her royal prerogatives; and towards the end of her reign, and during that of her pedantic successor, James, bookselling flourished. Archbishop Laud, who was no friend to booksellers, introduced many arbitrary restrictions; but they were all, or nearly all, removed during the time of the Commonwealth. So much had bookselling increased during the Protectorate that, in 1658, was published A Catalogue of the most Vendible Books in England, digested under the heads of Divinity, History, Physic, &c., with School Books, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and an Introduction, for the use of Schools, by W. London. A bad time immediately followed. The Restoration also restored the office of Licenser of the Press, which continued till 1694.
In the first English Copyright Act (1709), which specially relates to booksellers, it is enacted that, if any person shall think the published price of a book unreasonably high, he may thereupon make complaint to the archbishop of Canterbury, and to certain other persons named, who shall thereupon examine into his complaint, and if well founded reduce the price; and any bookseller charging more than the price so fixed shall be fined £5 for every copy sold. Apparently this enactment remained a dead letter.
For later times it is necessary to make a gradual distinction between booksellers, whose trade consists in selling books, either by retail or wholesale, and publishers, whose business involves the production of the books from the author’s manuscripts, and who are the intermediaries between author and bookseller, just as the booksellers (in the restricted sense) are intermediaries between the author and publisher and the public. The article on Publishing (q.v.) deals more particularly with this second class, who, though originally booksellers, gradually took a higher rank in the book-trade, and whose influence upon the history of literature has often been very great. The convenience of this distinction is not impaired by the fact either that a publisher is also a wholesale bookseller, or that a still more recent development in publishing (as in the instance of the direct sale in 1902, by the London Times, of the supplementary volumes to the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which were also “published” by The Times) started a reaction to some extent in the way of amalgamating the two functions. The scheme of The Times Book Club (started in 1905) was, again, a combination of a subscription library with the business of bookselling (see Newspapers); and it brought the organization of a newspaper, with all its means of achieving publicity, into the work of pushing the sale of books, in a way which practically introduced a new factor into the bookselling business.
During the 19th century it remains the fact that the distinction between publisher and bookseller—literary promoter and shopkeeper—became fundamental. The booksellers, as such, were engaged either in wholesale bookselling, or in the retail, the old or second-hand, and the periodical trades.
Coming between the publisher and the retail bookseller is the important distributing agency of the wholesale bookseller. It is to him that the retailer looks for his miscellaneous supplies, as it is simply impossible for him to stock one-half of the books published. In Paternoster Row, London, which has for over a hundred years been the centre of this industry, may be seen the collectors from the shops of the retail booksellers, busily engaged in obtaining the books ordered by the book-buying public. It is also through these agencies that the country bookseller obtains his miscellaneous supplies. At the leading house in this department of bookselling almost any book can be found, or information obtained concerning it. At one of these establishments over 1,000,000 books are constantly kept in stock. It is here that the publisher calls first on showing or “subscribing” a new book, a critical process, for by the number thus subscribed the fate of a book is sometimes determined.
What may be termed the third partner in publishing and its ramification is the retail bookseller; and to protect his interests there was established in 1890 a London booksellers’ society, which had for its object the restriction of discounts to 25%, and also to arrange prices generally and control all details connected with the trade. The society a few years afterwards widened its field of operations so as to include the whole of the United Kingdom, and its designation then became “The Associated Booksellers of Great Britain and Ireland.”
The trade in old or (as they are sometimes called) second-hand books is in a sense, no doubt, a higher class of business, requiring a knowledge of bibliography, while the transactions are with individual books rather than with numbers of copies. Occasionally dealers in this class of books replenish their stocks by purchasing remainders of books, which, having ceased from one cause or another to sell with the publisher, they offer to the public as bargains. The periodical trade grew up during the 19th century, and was in its infancy when the Penny Magazine, Chambers’s Journal, and similar publications first appeared. The growth of this important part of the business was greatly promoted by the abolition of the newspaper stamp and of the duty upon paper, the introduction of attractive illustrations, and the facilities offered for purchasing books by instalments.
The history of bookselling in America has a special interest. The Spanish settlements drew away from the old country much of its enterprise and best talent, and the presses of Mexico and other cities teemed with publications mostly of a religious character, but many others, especially linguistic and historical, were also published. Bookselling in the United States was of a somewhat later growth, although printing was introduced into Boston as early as 1676, Philadelphia in 1685, and New York in 1693. Franklin had served to make the trade illustrious, yet few persons were engaged in it at the commencement of the 19th century. Books chiefly for scholars and libraries were imported from Europe; but after the second war printing-presses multiplied rapidly, and with the spread of newspapers and education there also arose a demand for books, and publishers set to work to secure the advantages offered by the wide field of English literature, the whole of which they had the liberty of reaping free of all cost beyond that of production. The works of Scott, Byron, Moore, Southey, Wordsworth, and indeed of every author of note, were reprinted without the smallest payment to author or proprietor. Half the names of the authors in the so-called “American” catalogue of books printed between 1820 and 1852 are British. By this means the works of the best authors were brought to the doors of all classes in the cheapest variety of forms. In consequence of the Civil War, the high price of labour, and the restrictive duties laid on in order to protect native industry, coupled with the frequent intercourse with England, a great change took place, and American publishers and booksellers, while there was still no international copyright, made liberal offers for early sheets of new publications. Boston, New York and Philadelphia still retained their old supremacy as bookselling centres. Meanwhile, the distinct publishing business also grew, till gradually the conditions of business became assimilated to those of Europe.
In the course of the 16th and 17th centuries the Low Countries for a time became the chief centre of the bookselling world, and many of the finest folios and quartos in our libraries bear the names of Jansen, Blauw or Plantin, with the imprint of Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leiden or Antwerp, while the Elzevirs besides other works produced their charming little pocket classics. The southern towns of Douai and St Omer at the same time furnished polemical works in English.
Under Publishing are noticed various further developments of this subject. Much interesting information on the history of the book trade will be found in Charles Knight’s Biography of William Caxton, and in the same author’s Shadows of the Old Booksellers (1865). See also Henry Curwen, History of Booksellers (1873); and Heinrich Lempertz, Bilder-Hefte zur Geschichte des Bücherhandels (Cologne, 1854).