"Alexis Weedon, Victorian Publishing The Economics of Book Publishing"
Alexis Weedon, Victorian Publishing: The Economics of Book Publishing for a Mass Market 1836-1916, Ashgate 2003. pp. xvi+212. £40. This very useful book belongs to a promising recent trend in book history: the assembling of a wide range of data from publishers’ archives to establish the basic data of the book trade. Following on from Simon Eliot’s deceptively modestly-titled Some Patterns and Trends in British Publishing 1800–1919 (1994), it explores the economics of publishing in Victorian and Edwardian Britain by systematically interrogating not only publishing archives, but also government reports and library catalogues. Throughout the book a purpose-built database drawn from the records of ten publishers is used to assess the costs of book production. The first chapter explores the sources for this kind of study, providing a valuable survey of the confusing world of the publisher’s archive. As anyone knows who has had the disorienting experience of first looking into a publisher’s ledger, impression book, day book, or the like, they operate by mysterious rules, the rules vary from firm to firm, and often they cross-refer to other ledgers which do not survive. Alexis Weedon does not aim to explain all the rules, but she throws light on some of this jungle and encourages the researcher to go further, rather than giving up. This chapter, in fact, offers a good summary of how publishing worked in the period. Chapter 2 examines the growth of the mass book market, showing that (for example) between 1846 and 1916 the number of books published increased fourfold, while prices halved. The growth of the industry is situated within wider economic developments, and attention paid to the rise of overseas trade, notably in Australia and India. Chapter 3 looks at trends in book-production costs, following the history of innovations like mechanised paper-making and stereotyping and relating these to unit costs and publisher’s strategies. The fourth, ‘Looking after the bottom line’, explores the emergence of unified publishing operations in the early Victorian period, which replaced the groups of risk-sharing firms typical of the late-eighteenth century. Here there are useful graphs showing the changing pricing structures of different kinds of books. Readers of Paradigm will be especially interested in Chapter 5, ‘Educational publishing’. Publishers had to deal with a market influenced, in some cases controlled, by government or other regulation, and the growth of state intervention after 1833 had a powerful effect on what was published and what was profitable. Once again, the author looks outside Britain to 1 examine patterns of export to Canada, Australia, and India. Sections on different kinds of textbooks (arithmetic, classics, geography, science, and songbooks) are used to investigate the different kinds of markets in various school sectors. This is a pioneering effort, and though I felt at times that the specifics of changes in schooling and legislation needed more attention, it offers a basis and a provocation which deserves to be read, extended and discussed. The final chapter provides a case study of publishing strategies in the late 19th century by looking in detail at the history of Chatto & Windus. There are two appendices, the second of which contains summaries of the histories and archives of the firms used for the production cost database. Like the discussion of archives in Chapter 1, this is a helpful tool for the beginning researcher in this field. Overall, this is a very useful book. Anyone thinking of investigating the publishing of textbooks in this period would benefit from reading it – and not only the chapter devoted to educational publishing. Chris Stray 2