Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
The Rise of a National Book Trade System
in the United States

Michael Winship

.  .  .

An editorial in the 6 January 1900 issue of Publishers’ Weekly reflected on the state of publishing in the United States, noting “the wonderful development through utilization of natural forces, [such] as steam and electricity” and “the corresponding development in education” that had resulted in books having been “printed in such enormous quantities for the widest popular sale.” It further noted, “the contrast between that first general catalogue issued in 1804 and the portly Publishers’ Trade List Annual of to-day is sufficient evidence of this extraordinary development in our own country.” But according to the editors, progress had not been even and all was not well:

It is to be regretted that, particularly in the last quarter of a century, the
methods of the book trade in America, in England, and elsewhere have not
only failed to keep pace with book production, but have actually shown
retrogression. The fact that the public library has grown to be a great and
almost universal institution, within that period, does not account for the
diminution of books stores [sic] and book distributing facilities in most
of the smaller places … libraries have probably not decreased, and have
perhaps increased, the actual sale of books. The facility given by the mails
for the distribution of books has partly accounted for the lack of growth,
if not the diminution, of local book stores, so that in many places the “old
bookseller” is no more.1

This complaint, which sounds eerily familiar even today, demonstrates that book distribution has often posed a more difficult problem for publishers than book production. This was especially true in a country like the United States, in which production facilities, largely concentrated in eastern urban publishing centers, had to reach a diverse population spread over an extensive area. The history of American publishing has revolved around efforts to solve the problem of distribution. Costs, prices, and discounts were major concerns.

In an 1880 editorial, for example, the editors at Publishers’ Weekly advised:

-56-

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