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 4
The Expansion of the
National Book Trade System

James L. W. West III

.  .  .

For American publishers and booksellers, the period between 1920 and 1950 was a time of adjustment, transition, and expansion. Readily apparent by 1920 were the consequences of the failure to establish an American counterpart to the Net Book Agreement in Britain. Indeed, when American publishers’ efforts to emulate the pricing agreements of the British trade collapsed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Macy’s case, the U.S. trade turned to different measures for price maintenance and sought new ways of doing business.

Demographic and economic pressures affected American houses more deeply than their British counterparts. The American trade thus became more rough-and-tumble and front-list-oriented; it adopted a more pronounced gambling mentality and learned to expand through nontraditional channels of distribution and sales. American publishers became more commercial and readily tied themselves to other entertainment industries like theater, radio, and motion pictures. The book trade was constantly subject to market pressures. American publishers responded as businessmen in a large, popular democracy. Rather than imposing a British model on their book trade, American firms developed their own methods. These new practices were the foundation of American book publishing during the second half of the century.

Many of the houses founded during the 1910s and 1920s gained visibility and influence. Random House, Knopf, Liveright, Simon and Schuster, and Viking came to the fore; Harper, Appleton, Scribner, Putnam, and Holt, though losing ground, still controlled a considerable share of the book trade. Some of the new imprints came from modest beginnings. Random House developed from the Modern Library, a reprint line acquired by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer from Horace Liveright in 1925.1 Simon and Schuster’s first publications in the late 1920s were softbound crossword-puzzle books, distributed through magazine and newspaper wholesalers.2 These less prestigious publishing venues allowed the new houses to pursue fresh ideas about merchandising and distribution, ideas that brought books within convenient reach of nearly all American citizens by the 1940s.

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