Book Trade

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The history of the book in eighteenth-century America is by no means the history of American books. Although the first printing press in British North America was established as early as 1639 (at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts) and while eighteenth-century American printers managed to churn out extraordinary numbers of shorter items such as newspapers and pamphlets, a chronic lack of capital would seriously hamper the domestic American production of books to the early decades of the nineteenth century. As a result, most of the books by far that were sold and read in colonial America and the early Republic were imported books, mainly from England (London) and to a lesser extent from Ireland (Dublin) and Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh). With the exception of more specialized works of divinity and science (which often found their way to America through private channels of religious and scholarly affiliation), Americans would read what colonial booksellers could import. In practice this meant that the Anglo American book trade was determined much less by the intrinsic value of the book than by the mechanics of the commodity market in general; demand and supply, cost base, and profit margins primarily determined what books made it to the bookshelves of general readers and circulating libraries in America—not their aesthetic quality, scholarly content, or canonical status.

the transatlantic trade

The book trade between London and America was sluggish until the middle of the eighteenth century. The demand for books was generally low in what was still an overwhelmingly agricultural society; though literacy rates were relatively high in some regions, notably in Puritan New England, these readers tended to limit their consumption of print to a confined canon of religious works. The supply side of the trade was equally weak, with the London traders being discouraged by the high risks and costs of transatlantic shipping and the modest and uncertain profit margins. In the final analysis it was the entrepreneurial structure of the London publishing world that imposed the most serious constraints on the transatlantic book trade. The heavily capitalized publishing business in London was dominated by an exclusive fraternity of booksellers, and so long as they refused to sell to the colonial retailers at a wholesale price that was significantly below that of the going "gentleman's price" in London, the American trade remained weak. A few booksellers operating on the margins of the London monopoly, particularly James Rivington and William Strahan, attempted to undercut London book prices using a variety of market strategies, including the trade in pirated editions with false London imprints and in "rum books," unmarketable titles and random volumes that were sold in batches with a few attractive titles mixed in as a bait.

The only significant pressure on the London book tycoons came in the course of the 1760s and early 1770s from competitors who, because they either refused to recognize English copyright law (the Scots) or were outside of the jurisdiction of English law altogether (the Irish), could undersell their London rivals. This led to a marked increase in the transatlantic book trade. It has been calculated that in the period from 1770 to 1775, the total annual shipment of books from Britain to the mainland American colonies may have amounted to around 120,000 separate volumes and printed items, which was approximately 4 percent of the total British annual output. However, the Revolutionary crisis would soon interrupt the transatlantic commerce in books.

changes after the revolution

The post-Revolutionary period saw a rapid increase in the secularization of the reading public's taste, and in the wake of that a phenomenal growth of the demand for print in general and for prose fiction in particular. Several factors contributed to this development. Fundamental changes were taking place in the marketing and dissemination of print. Thus, booksellers began to adopt more commodity-driven market strategies similar to those used by later publishers, and this redefined the relationship between booksellers and readers as one between producers and consumers of print. An even greater impact on the reading public's taste and hence on the consumption of print was the exponential rise in the number of circulating libraries in the second half of the century, most notably in the 1790s, when the number tripled while the growth of the population only doubled. The proportion of fiction in the catalogues of circulating libraries rose from 10 percent in the 1750s to over 50 percent around 1800. By the late eighteenth century, Americans were largely a novel-reading public. However, paper, type, and money remained in short supply in post-Revolutionary America, so that when trade with Britain was resumed after the Treaty of Paris of 1783, bookselling in the early Republic remained largely a matter of book importing. Although some American book traders managed to get a stake in the lucrative piracy market, even the more successful American importers were only small players in the transatlantic book trade—which after the Act of Union (1801), joining Ireland and Britain into a single kingdom, was dominated even more than before by London book tycoons. In Britain there had been a rise in the number of cooperative bookselling firms and partnerships from the 1780s onward, but in the United States such a consolidation in the market did not take place till later, notably between 1800 and 1840. As a result of this uneven competition, of the hundreds of colonial and early Republican printers-publishers, only Mathew Carey's business survived into the nineteenth century. This meant that for much of this period, American readers continued to read what the London printers provided.

See alsoAfrican Americans: African American Literature; Almanacs; Children's Literature; Free Library Movement; German-Language Publishing; Nonfiction Prose; Poetry; Religious Publishing; Women: Women's Literature .


Amory, Hugh, and David D. Hall, eds. The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Botein, Stephen. "The Anglo-American Book Trade before 1776: Personnel and Strategies." In Printing and Society in Early America. Edited by William L. Joyce et al. Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1983.

Wil Verhoeven