History of Publishing

The following post summarizes the history of publishing from its early stages to contemporary times. The information up to the period 2004 is taken from Richard Guthrie’s “Publishing: Principles & Practice“. 

Before humans found a necessity for documenting data into some sort of medium, they preserved, celebrated and shared valuable information through oratory either in the form of storytelling (legends, myths), poetry, chanting or singing. This was often preserved and passed on from one generation to another.


Image source: Getty Images 

Period: (197-159 BC)
Vellum, also known as parchment, is made of dried animal skin and is considered to be one of earliest forms that man used to write on. During this time period, Eumennes II of Pergamum, in Asia Minor created the Library of Pergamum.

Vellum Codex (Caudex, meaning tree trunk in Latin)
Greece and Rome took the concept of Vellum and developed the Vellum Codex, which consists of a technique in using wax inscriptions on bound wooden boards and leaves.

The Papyrus Scroll
The Papyrus Scroll is considered by historians as the first light, versatile and portable technology for publishing script and images invented by the Egyptians around 5000 years ago. The Papyrus itself is a leaf taken from the Papyrus tree, soaked into water and dried in the sun. The Papyrus sheets were then polished and prepared for use. The Papyrus was very popular in the Mediterranean region and was used a lot until 1100 AD.

Period: 400 AD
The Codex developed from Vellum at this time became so popular as the main publishing technology- more popular than using Papyrus scrolls. In Rome, Vellum Codex was used for religious, creative text, historical and educational publications. From 400 AD to 1000 AD, book production in the Mediterranean region was fast moving.


Photo Source: National Geographic

Period: 700 to 1300 AD
Books became a symbol of status in the Arabian world. The 10th century Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael (A.D. 938-995) was so in love with his book collection he traveled everywhere with a 400 camel caravan carrying 117,000 books. Camel drivers were librarians responsible for taking care of his books and retrieving a volume when needed.

Sloane 2565  ff 45v-46

Image Source: Medievalist 

Period: The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, Scribes (Scriptoria and Scrivener Shops) spread throughout Europe. The art of hand making books was not an easy task and required a very long time to finish. They were also only affordable and available to clerics, wealthy merchants and the aristocracy.

The Printing Press

Image Source: History(dot)com

Period: Mid-Fifteenth Century
Although China and Korea had movable printing techniques centuries before, it was Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the first viable industrial machine that has revolutionized publishing for mass printing. This has lead to something similar to mass-market business models for the first time. The invention of printing has reduced manuscript production time and cost massively. Additionally, books are no longer confined only to the wealthy and powerful.

In order for the book trade to grow during this period, literacy needed improve but it took a very long time for that to happen. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century when literacy in Britain bloomed and lead to a mass sales of books. It took some time for handwritten tradition to phase out. New formats of style and print developed when printing stopped imitating handwritten manuscript.

England & The Printing Press
Although England adopted the printing press quarter of a century later (1470s), it made up for it with the rise of the book trade. England is no longer isolated and is the focus of attention now. The new printing press has brought recognition to the English language and spread it throughout the world.


“William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen. Published in The Graphic in 1877 refering to The Caxton Celebration. The Caxton Celebration, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first printed book in England, took place in London in the summer of 1877.” Image Source: old-print(dot)com

Period: 1475-1533: The Early English Trade

William Caxton was a pioneering English printer and book trader. He was also a translator, a bookseller and a printer-publisher. His first publications is The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1475), which is compiled from a French original by Raoulle Fevre (1464).

Caxton and his assistant Wynkyn de Worde, sold books near Westminister Abbey. He published most of his books in English, which included Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400). De Worde moved their business later to Fleet Street, beginning the long tradition of the print trade in the area around St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Another printer is John Lettou, who set up his business in London with his partner William de Machlinia. They printed England’s first law book Tenores Novelli, which happens to be a significant accomplishment in UK publishing. Legal publishing became one of the most important and profitable at the time.

Richard III

Image Source: An unknown artist’s copy of an original portrait of Richard III                                (1520, Royal Collection)

Richard III
The book trade received significant support from Richard III, who promoted the local trade by banning the import of foreign books. This proved beneficial to local book traders at the time (especially with the threat of Italy swamping the region) and has lead to a growth in English letters, language and culture.

By this time English authors still do not hold a significant position like other European authors (for another 250 years before they were recognized). Power in the English book trade was centered around printers and booksellers.

Stationers Hall

Image Source:  The City, by Sir Walter Besant. [Adam & Charles Black, London, 1911]. Artist: Hedley Hilton. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Period: 1533-1694 – The Age of Control

Henry VIII
Unlike Richard III, Henry VIII removed the ban on foreign books. Henry VIII put together a Privy Council responsible for overseeing books in England. The task became challenging for council members and therefore scrivener guild called The Stationers’ Company offered the king to oversee the trade; however, the king refused despite granting the University of Cambridge in 1534 a royal charter for printing.

When Henry VIII’s daughter Mary took over she granted the Stationers’ Company a royal charter to take charge of commercial printing throughout England. The Stationers’ Company guarded this privilege for 150 years. The company was also given the right to print money.

The Stationers’ Company
The Stationers’ Company carried a strong hold over the book trade in England and has played an important role in shaping the early English book trade. Its members held rights known as rights in copy equal to property rights under English law. Their control over printing lasted from 1557 to 1694.

The UK’s publishing traditions and practices dictate that the publisher has the final say, not the original author. The author has no right to withdraw his or her work should they choose to do so like other traditions.

Charles I (1625-1649)
During the reign of Charles, royal edicts were not welcomed. The Stationers’ Company as a result lost its power. There was a lot of political tension and problems during this period. When the civil war broke out and the king was executed, publishing also became wild and chaotic. Private and self-publishing became popular.

Oliver Cromwell
After Charles I’s execution, Cromwell became Lord protector. New printing continued to flourish; however, The Stationers’ Company suspended its power and remained quiet. After Cromwell’s death, his son failed to establish power and the Stuarts took control of the throne (1660). The Licensing Act of 1662 gave publishing power and status back to the Stationers’ Company.



Cover Page of the Copyright Act 1911, also known as the Imperial Copyright Act of 1911

Period: 1694-1774 – The Rise of “The Publisher”
The book trade during these years was very chaotic and required control. The world’s first copyright act took place as a result. In April 1710 The Statue of Anne passed by Parliament introducing copyright terms for authors.

The Statue of Anne (1710)
The Statue provided: “14 year terms for new works, renewable for another 14 years upon application; one-time term of 21 years for works under existing terms of ownership, or for those categorized as orphan works (unidentified)”

The role of a “publisher” was not required to govern the trade. This role is a combination of a printer and bookseller. The publisher’s job was now to buy works from authors, prepare them for publication and then find ways to get them to the public. Because The Stationers’ Company lost some of its power by this time, it could not be the sole governor of this task. Instead, many wealthy stationers’ members became printers and booksellers. The Copyright Act of 1710 provided copyright regulations by the government and courts rather than by private parties which intensified the Stationers lack of ownership.

The Stationers Company members tried to challenge the new law; however, the issue was finally settled in a dramatic House of Lords ruling in Donaldson v. Becket (1774).


Sachsische Maschinenfabrik Unknown Author/Scanned by Norbert Kaiser Date of Origin        1867-1868, PD-US

Period: 1774—1935 – The Publishing Firm Era
The publisher has now grown as a central part of the publishing process. Both the publisher and author are now at the heart of the whole business.

The United States at this time has caught up with Britain’s copyright law and established its own Act in 1790; however, the U.S. law went one step ahead by adding freedom of expression in its first amendment of the US constitution.

In the UK, family-owned firms became popular such as Longman (Thomas Longman), John Murray, and Macmillan. Decisions in the business are now taken by an editorial department that represent the views of the publisher.

Although the book trade may not have seemed as valuable as the cotton or wool trade during the 19th century, it was significant in terms of politics and culture. Publishing during this time period was influenced by many factors such as:

  • Using steam power to improve the printing technology
  • Emerging new techniques in paper production
  • Mechanical typesetting & illustrating methods
  • Improving (i.e. reducing) paper costs
  • Using cloth casing instead of leather binding

The publishing industry grew massively during the industrial revolution. New educational policies elevated literacy, which in turn expanded readership. The novel became popular and British publishers produced titles that grew in number each year. London became the capital of English language publishing. In the United States, the industry also grew and spread particularly in Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

Book Piracy
Because there was still no international copyright agreement, American publishers picked up English books as they arrived by ship. Illegal American editions of British titles were common in the US market at that time. Piracy was also found in Britain (Uncle Tom’s Cabin selling well over a million illegal copies in Britain).

The book business was now a big and diverse industry which included trade publishers and academic publishers. Oxford University Press officially became an exported brand in 1896 and opened its first American office in New York.

Protecting the Trade
Eventually the book trade became officially a protected cultural activity. The UK Publishers Association (1896) protected established houses and set rules for the trade. Promoting trade stability followed with the Net Book Agreement (NBA); an agreement between The Publishers Association and booksellers that set prices for book sales to the public (1900-1990s). This ensured profitability for major houses.

The Twentieth Century, Great Depression & Innovation
During the Great Depression, a severe decline hit UK publishing because the UK could no longer depend on American sales to boost its business. Publishers began thinking of new ways to improve book trading (such as the spreading of reprint book cubs and the invention of Book Token by British publisher Harold Raymond).


1930s Whitman “Big Little Books” Collection (52 Different) Including Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy and Mickey Mouse. Source: Goldinauctions

Period: 1935—1970 – The Paperback Revolution
Even more innovation was required for the industry to keep afloat. Paperback was already used in many forms during the nineteenth century; however, the paperback market of 1930 became a hit and introduced new distribution ways. This created one of Britain’s biggest names— Penguin Books.

Penguin Books
German imprint, aka Albatross was set up in 1931 Germany. Albatross made cheap 7 by 4 inches format English-language paperbacks for the continental market. Due to some political issues, Albatross stopped trading. Allen Lane, Penguin’s founder adopted many ideas from Albatross: The company’s simple book designs, book size, lack of color illustration, and color coding by genre. Allen Lane also hired Kurt Enoch (the man who set up Albatross) as Penguin’s chief of operations in New York.

Allen Lane began Penguin Books with Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and nine other titles. Lane’s greatest coup was selling cheap paperbacks. He convinced Woolworth to stock Penguin books sold at sixpence, which fitted Woolworth’s slogan of ‘nothing more than sixpence’. Allen Lane’s business model meant that he had to sell 18,000 copies of each title a year before breaking even; however, with Woolworth on board, he sold millions within a year.

Penguin books was the first to achieve mass sales with paperbacks, but in the U.S. Penguin at the time had no real presence and wasn’t explored to its full potential. This was partly due to Lane’s inflexibility with the U.S. branch over cover design and selling methods.

Pocket Books
In America, Pocket Books created by Robert Fair deGraff, and backed up by Simon & Schuster sold its books at 25 cents. Titles were placed in department stores like Macy’s and Liggett’s were sold out in 24 hours. Unlike Penguin, Pocket Books were colorful and competed with pulp novels. While Penguin was busy sorting out its management issues in the US at the time, Pocket Books took the chance to grow, affecting the overall revenues of US publishing.

Books During the War
During WWII, paperback sales increased. A non-government organization made up of booksellers, publishers, authors, and librarians formed the US Council on Books in Wartime (1942). The council promoted books to aid during times of war, build morale, disseminate information and provide leisure and inspiration. Special low-cost paperbacks were sold to the armies and navies for overseas distribution only.

Book Wars
During the 1940s several businesses were head to head with each other in the US publishing market. Marshall Field (an American Entrepreneur) bought Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books in 1944. He also targeted Grosset & Dunlap to further his market plans; however, another businessman- Bennnet Cerf of Random House stepped in by organizing a consortium of publishers that included Little, Brown, Harpers, Scribners, World Book Encyclopedia and Book-of-the-Month Club to make Grosset & Dunlap a better deal. The latter consented and accepted the consortium proposal. Meanwhile, Enoch from Albatross left Penguin US and formed The New American Library of World Literature (NAL) that specialized in paperback reprints of classics and scholarly books in addition to pulp and detective fiction. The US paperback market was expanding fast.

In the UK, Penguin continued to flourish and launched Penguin Classics and opened its first Australian office. In 1949, a Canadian paperback publisher Harlequin was founded competing directly with Pocket Books and produced mysteries and eventually romances. Other publishing houses such as Ballantine (building a large science fiction list) and Anchor Books also founded in the 1950s. At this point the paperback industry was well established. For a short period, paperbacks received criticism for its ‘racy content’ from conservative readers but eventually bounced back.

In the 1960s, the market boomed with university students favoring existential titles by Camus, Sartre, Carlos Castenada, Hesse, Kerouac and Ginsberg. Paperbacks also became fashion accessories and fodder for pop songs and pop art. Paperbacks became the embodiment of culture and intellectualism.


Period: 1965—New Millennium: Conglomerate Publishing
From the mid 1960s onwards, book publishing firms reached multinational cross-media corporate empires. Old-Style publishing gradually phased out due to many factors such as the boom of paperbacks, escalating profits, and rise of technology and computer-led learning.

Radio Corporation of America (RCA) bought Random House for $40 million. Other companies such as IBM, ITT,  Litton, Raytheon, Xerox, General Electric, GTE and CBS also bought other publishing houses. Large corporations moved fast to own and control information and book assets in the market. In the UK, similarly reorganization took place.

Acquisitions & Takeovers
Marketing and sales strategies replaced editorial management in book businesses. In the 1980s a new phase of acquisitions took over. RCA sold Random House to the Newhouse magazine empire. CBS ventured into publishing and then sold out again. Simon & Schuster bought the textbook publisher, Prentice Hall. Pearson merged with Longmans in the UK and bought Penguin in 1970. Australia’s News Corporation bought Harper & Row in 1987 and then Collins in 1989 making HarperCollins in 1990. Holland’s Elsevier merged with UK’s Reed. German’s Holtzbrinck bought Macmillan. Time Warner, the world’s largest media corporation bought Little Brown and founded Warner Books. German’s Bertelsmann took over Bantam, Doubleday and Dell, becoming the largest publisher in the US when it bought Random House from Newhouse in 1998.

Conglomerates reshaped the book industry. They changed their focus from backlist sales to explosive front list sales in addition to focusing on bestselling authors and promoting them consistently on media and television. While there was a lot of effort to “turn the book model into a ‘global supermarket of books’, books remained a discretionary purchase and as such were resistant to wholesale changes”. Advertising strategies could be used with clever use of media, but readers “would not necessarily do what is expected of them”.

Between the 1980s and 2004, many big media companies in charge of the book market left. All major media markets up to that point were interdependent. In the twenty-first century the book trade is largely arranged in oligopolies. Content is now synergized and reused widely in diverse locations and contexts. Competition is fierce and will continue to be. The “main focus of the late twentieth century was who would own book publishing? The big concern of the twenty-first century (up to the beginning of the new millennium) is how will the book survive?”

Publishing Today

Period: The Present — Diversification.
Publishing today is still evolving. Nonfiction has increased popularity with politically charged books (2018). Additionally, a lot of diversity has taken place in fiction including authors and subjects of minorities and cross-culture. The partnership between books and TV has never been stronger particularly with streaming popularity. Sony Pictures Entertainment and HarperCollins have joined forces recently with former Fox 2000 Pictures Elizabeth Gabler sourcing literary material and content (2019). This will open the path for more experimentation.

Unlike the concerns of early Millennium, ebooks have not taken over paper books. In fact, the latter have proven themselves here to stay. Alternatively many of forms of reading are now at work. Audiobooks for example are making a strong comeback especially with Amazon’s Audible. Amazon’s Whispersync gives reader the ability to switch back and forth between their digital Kindle copy and Audible narration. Other aspects of publishing such as the rise of digital learning technology, interactive reading, open source education and open source in general are continuing to change day by day. Publishing has come a long way over the centuries despite its changing forms. One thing is guaranteed- humans will continue to create content and contribute to culture be it in the form of a papyrus roll, a codex, paperback or a digital reading tablet.

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