Wednesday, August 18, 2010

History of Publishing: Part Two

I was recently asked why it’s so important for writers to know about the history of publishing. My reply was, would you buy a house without knowing its history? A house is a big investment, so you’d want to know if the plumbing and electrical work was sound, if the roof leaked or the basement flooded every time it rained. Only a fool would buy a house without first having it inspected for problems.

Likewise, a writer invests a great deal of time and money in a book. It’s difficult to estimate the cost of time spent writing, but marketing a novel certainly isn’t a cheap enterprise. Websites, bookmarks, mailings to stores and libraries, and author tours can quickly drain away a writer’s earned income. Understanding how the publishing business got to where it is today, and using that knowledge to plan for the future, are vital for predicting an author’s success.

As related previously, Harper & Brothers (today simply called Harpers) set the foundation for modern day publishing back in the 1800’s. Colonial and post-Revolutionary printers most often acted as paid publishers, charging authors to print their work and sometimes helping to disseminate that work to the public. Harpers was one of the first companies to use its own money to publish books, paying authors after they recovered the printing costs. With the emergence of the royalty system proposed by George Palmer Putnam in 1846, authors began receiving 10 percent of the cover price of every book sold. (More on royalties in a later blog.)

Following a fire in 1853, Harpers financed two new buildings to house its publishing company. One building was reserved for management, inventory, and wholesaling operations. The other six-story building served as the manufacturing plant with each floor dedicated to a separate task. Overseen by male managers, women manned the steam presses on the first floor. One story up, boys hung the printed sheets to dry before they were folded, sewed, and stitched by workers on the next levels. Higher up in the building, workers fitted the books with covers, pasted down the flyleaves, and trimmed the edges.

This early pattern of assembly line mass production of books ensured the continued rise of Harper Bros. in the publishing business. Labor was cheap in those days, with wages amounting to ten cents per hour in manufacturing, or $1.00 for a 10-hour day. At the same time, hardcover books sold for $1 or more apiece.

To examine the impact of these figures on income, consider how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was published in 1852 by John P. Jewett & Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The book numbered 340 pages. If Jewett used a cylinder printing press of the type invented by Richard Hoe in 1846, his company could print 8000 pages per hour, or the equivalent of 23.5 books per hour per printing press. In a 10-hour workday, Jewett could print approximately 235 books per press.

At a retail price of $1 per book, the gross income per press was $235/day while the cost of labor for running that press was $1/day. Add to that the labor costs for binding, etc. and the overhead costs of ink, electricity, etc. and the cost per book rose some. Despite initial costs to publish a book, the resultant income to a company could be enormous. All that mattered was operating enough presses to do a major print run.

An old picture of Harpers’ manufacturing plant shows the first floor press room where each printing press stands cheek by jowl with another press. Given the number of presses owned by Harper, it’s little wonder they were the big boys on the block when it came to American publishing companies.

Harpers would reign as “king of the hill” until the 1927 when Random House was founded by Bennett Cerf, Christopher Coombes, and Donald Klopfer. Sold in 1965 to RCA for $40 million and then again in 1998 to German private media corporation Bertelsmann AG for an estimated $1.4 billion, today Random House is the largest English language book publisher in the world.

Next: Publishing Goes From Privately-held Companies to Multinational Corporations



  1. Mary,

    Great second installment. I'm eagerly looking forward to the next.
    M.T. Logan

  2. Thanks, M.T. I'm enjoying writing this series. I've been researching the subject for years, and am finally getting what I've learned into some semblance of order and down on paper.

  3. This is fascinating stuff! I'm glad you're doing it.

  4. I hope to have the next installment here tomorrow. Blame my lack of enterprise on too many friend-and-family events this week! :)