Publishing from the Past to the Present

Communicating Knowledge: Publishing in the 21st Century. Editor: John Feather. Munich: K. G. Saur, 2003.

Introduction: What is Publishing?

Communication is a fundamental characteristic of all animals. It is not only human beings who have developed communication skills of a high order. Uniquely, however, we have developed verbal and visual languages, which have become our primary means of communication with each other. Indeed, the development of language is taken as one of the indicators of the distinctiveness of our species, and the evolution of language skills in the young is a key indicator of personal, social and intellectual development. The use of language as a communication medium is, however, subject to physiological constraints; there are limits to the distance over which we can make ourselves heard, to the time for which we can remember what has been said, and to the quantity of information which any one person can remember. The differences between individuals—the volume of the voice, the sharpness of the hearing, the retentiveness of the memory—are marginal compared with these universal limitations.

The invention of systems of preserving and transmitting language is another distinguishing characteristic of the species. In pictures, symbols, scripts and alphabets, people in many different parts of the world have, over a period of many thousands of years, developed elaborate and sophisticated means for overcoming the physical constraints on spoken language. Facts, ideas and thoughts can thus be transmitted from one to many as well as from one to one; and they can be transmitted over distance and time, even from the dead to the living. Preserved and transmitted language has thus become one of the principal means by which we have expressed ourselves. Visual and oral communications have, of course, remained critically important; indeed both have been substantially revived in the most literate societies in the history of the world because of the evolution of technologies which allow them also to be transmitted widely, as we shall see. But the transmission of written language has, for many centuries, been at the heart of the cultural enterprise of the west.

The invention of writing is at least 5000 years old. The invention of printing is far more recent, just over 500 years ago in Europe and a little longer in the Far East. Each, however, represented a formidable leap in the intellectual evolution of mankind, although the full impact of the former took millennia to be fully realized, and even the impact of printing was initially slow and partial. Developments were uneven, temporally and geographically; even today, when in some countries literacy is almost universal, in others it is still limited by such factors as social class, economic status, gender and race. In the past, such distinctions were even more marked. In Western Europe 2000 years ago, for example, there was a Latin-speaking literate elite; 1000 years ago that elite was probably an even smaller percentage of the population as a whole, but there was also, partly overlapping with it, a larger group which was literate in one or more vernacular languages, some of which were derivatives of Latin. Two hundred years ago in Britain, almost everyone in the upper and middle classes could both read and write; among the poor, many men could do so, but fewer women. Neither the class nor the gender imbalances were fully corrected until the beginning of the last century. Even today, there are adult illiterates in Britain whose first and only language is English; there are others who are literate in some other languages (such as Gujerati, for example) but not in English. At any time and place in history where literacy is to be found, a similar story of variations can also be found.

It is against this background that we have to understand the development of publishing, the activity which is the focal point of this book. We must begin with a definition. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD) offers three senses:

  1. make generally known, noise abroad;
  2. announce formally, promulgate (edict, etc.);
  3. ask, read (banns of marriage).

Only then does it add:

‘(of author, editor, or publisher) issue copies of (book, engraving, etc.) for sale to the public’.

The origin of the word, the Latin verb publicare, is actually best reflected in the most comprehensive and least specific of these senses, ‘to make generally known’. But it is in the most restricted sense that the word is normally understood as to ‘issue copies … for sale to the public’. It is in this sense that it is used here, recognising that even this sense is very broad. If we take COD‘s exemplary ‘book, engraving etc.’, we can multiply the examples: magazines and newspapers are obvious extensions. But what of computer software, or recorded sound, or videos, or indeed multi-media products which effectively combine all three? These are also ‘issued for sale to the public’, and contain knowledge and information in textual and visual (as well as aural) form. The dictionary definition still makes logical sense, and—perhaps more to the point—still relates to the reality which we can see and analyse in the world today.

We should not, however, focus only on the media which are published. The other element in the definition draws our attention to the commercial dimension of the activity: ‘for sale to the public‘. In due course we shall look more deeply at what we actually mean by both ‘sale’ and ‘public’ in this context; for the moment, it is enough to recognize that in the definition of an authoritative dictionary, publishing is seen as being an essentially commercial transaction. For all practical purposes, therefore, we can take it that ‘publishing’ is a business activity; and that a publisher is concerned with making a profit.

There are, of course, other activities which do make information or opinion ‘generally known’ and even make use of media which are also used by publishers. Perhaps the most obvious contemporary example is a Website which can be accessed without charge, but it is equally true of advertising posters on billboards, or broadcasts on radio or television. In each of these examples, the intention is certainly to ‘make public’; in some of them a commercial transaction is involved, but the relationship between provider and end-user is widely understood to be different. Exactly how different it really is, and the practical consequences of that difference, we shall explore in a later Chapter.

If, for the moment, we take the commonly understood meaning of ‘publishing’, we can trace its European history back to the Mediterranean world in the last few centuries before the Common Era. Manuscripts were copied by scribes for sale to customers; some were written on commission, but others appear to have been produced speculatively with a view to subsequent retail sale. This practice vanished with the Roman Empire, but the copying of manuscripts, of course, did not. A trade in the copying of manuscripts re-emerged in Paris in the twelfth century, and thereafter spread unevenly around western Europe, principally in cities which had universities or other centres of scholarship. By the fifteenth century, secular and vernacular manuscripts were a part of this trade, and it was partly because of the demand for such manuscripts that there was a search for a more cost-effective and rapid means of book production. The solution was printing, invented in the Rhine Valley in the middle of the fifteenth century. During the next generation, printing was taken to the heartland of contemporary western civilization—France and Italy—and thereafter to the more peripheral countries—the Low Countries, England, Poland and the Iberian Peninsula. The details of this need not detain us, but one important point must be made.

Even from the brief, and vastly simplified, account in the last paragraph, it should be clear that publishing and printing are two separate activities, and that they are not dependent on each other. Publishing existed before printing; printing was merely a tool, a means to an end, and the printed book simply a product in which publishers could deal. Of course, printed books came to dominate, indeed virtually to define, the publishing industry for the next five hundred years, but the older trade in manuscripts had been a form of publishing, just as in our own day the process of selling many other information products is, in all its fundamentals, an activity which can be defined as publishing.

Printing, however, made possible the publishing industry, as we now understand it. Its development was slow and fitful. There are complex interrelationships—not yet fully explored or understood—between the history of publishing and wider history of western culture. The printed word, the dominant communication device of early modern and modern Europe, facilitated advances in learning and education, and can be argued to have had a critical influence on political, social and economic change. Europeans took with them their assumptions about literacy, and the technology of printing which supported it, as they crossed the globe. In European settlements from Mexico in the sixteenth century to the south Pacific in the nineteenth, the ruler or the missionary with a printing press became one of the instruments of European domination of the much of the world. Languages were reduced to writing for the first time so that they could be printed; those who spoke the language then had to be taught to read. But there was little available for them to read in many of these languages, and gradually the language of the conqueror came to be identified with literacy, with ‘progress’ and with ‘civilization’. In central and South America, in Africa and across the Pacific, hundreds of languages simply vanished because they were unsustainable in a print culture. Throughout its history, printing has had a normalising effect on language, and through the publication of the printed word has made cultures more uniform.

When the first printed Bibles were coming off Gutenberg’s press in the mid-1440s, there can have been little if any sense of the truly revolutionary nature of the event. In truth, however, the very technology contained within itself the seeds of the revolution. Printing is a process designed to make multiple copies of identical items; it is indeed precisely for that reason that it was both cheaper and more accurate than the work of a scribe copying a manuscript. As a consequence, however, printing made little commercial sense unless multiple copies were indeed produced. Printing involves significant capital investment in both equipment (the press, type and so on) and materials (paper and ink); all of that investment must be made before a single copy of a book can be produced. Thereafter, it can only be recouped, and a profit generated, if enough copies of the book are sold at the right price in a reasonable time. These truisms were a step-change in the economies of book production in the second half of the fifteenth century. It was the recognition of them, albeit perhaps implicitly, that created the modern publishing industry.

The history of printing and publishing is littered with bankruptcies; Gutenberg was the pioneer of this as well as of printing itself. It took a generation for the trade to become a little more stable, as books began to be widely distributed through existing trading networks, some of which had existed for centuries, which linked the markets and fairs of Europe. This was only possible because much of what was printed in those early years was in Latin, the common language of the Western elite. Vernacular printing and publishing was a somewhat later phenomenon, although our knowledge of it may well be distorted by lack of evidence caused by the loss of the books which were produced. Vernacular printing was established by the end of the fifteenth century, most notably in England where the first printer, William Caxton, was a native who consciously developed a market for literature in English, partly perhaps because the small demand for Latin works could be satisfied by imported continental editions. The gradual displacement of Latin by the vernaculars as the language of printing and publishing is a long story, not wholly completed until the nineteenth century. The loss of the universal language of the learned elite created the circumstances in which linguistically defined, often national, publishing industries could develop. Only in the present century has something like a new universal elite language emerged which now dominates the publishing world.

From Printing to Publishing

To describe Gutenberg or Caxton as a ‘publisher’ is at once both accurate and misleading. It is true that both were concerned with the sale and distribution of their books, but they were also the producers who owned and operated the technology of printing. Although they had different approaches and backgrounds (Gutenberg was a craftsman, Caxton a merchant), they both engaged in printing and bookselling, and were responsible for the capital investment needed for both equipment and production. It is the gradual separation of these various functions which is central to an understanding of how publishing became the distinctive activity recognized in the dictionary definitions of the late twentieth century.

Until the beginning of the seventeenth century, there was little distinction between the three basic book trade functions: publishing, printing and bookselling. From that time onwards, however, the printing function became gradually more distinct. The reason for this is superficially simple, although the process by which it happened is not yet fully understood, and varied in different parts of Europe both in time and in significance. The essence of the change was that there was a growing recognition, implicit rather than explicit in many cases, that both the skills and the business of printing were fundamentally different from those of publishing. The printer was an employer of labour; even to operate a single press required at least three specialist craftsmen; two pressmen to operate the machine itself, and one compositor to set the type. In practice, printers typically employed more compositors than pressmen, although some owners may themselves have worked in one or both capacities from time to time. In addition to labour costs, the printer also had to provide materials and equipment. The minimal equipment of a single press and a sufficient quantity of type represented a significant investment; materials such as ink and (most importantly) paper also had to be bought, paid for and stored. The early modern printing house may have been a small-scale operation by later industrial standards, but it was by no means trivial. In early seventeenth-century London, we should envisage a master printer who owned the business, probably helped by his immediate family, employing three or four journeymen, having the help of one or two apprentices, and owning two presses and a large quantity of type and miscellaneous equipment. He needed a workshop in which all this could be operated, and a warehouse in which supplies, and perhaps printed sheets, could be kept until they were needed. He was dealing with a number of specialist suppliers (paper merchants or wholesale stationers, and suppliers of ink) as well as with those who wanted the materials which he was printing.

The book trade was never wholly monopolized by the printers, although for most of the sixteenth century they were certainly the dominant force in the major Western centres of book production. This was in part an artificial phenomenon. Governments wished to restrict the circulation of printed matter. At a time when control of the press was regarded as a norm throughout Europe, they could most easily do so by regulating the numbers of printers and the number of both their presses and their employees. This gave the printers a significant hold over the rest of the trade, and they found themselves in a position to charge high prices for their work. Printing became a prosperous business, and its separation from the more speculative business of publishing was an obvious advantage to its practitioners. By operating essentially as the paid agents of publishers, the printers ensured that their incomes were not dependent on the vagaries of the success or failure of particular titles or editions. They printed what was commissioned from them, and were duly paid, regardless of the commercial fate of the material which they printed.

The printers’ domination of the London book trade was gradually undermined, however, as their skills were more widely disseminated. Artificial attempts to restrict the number of master printers, journeymen and apprentices, which persisted for much of the seventeenth century, were only fitfully enforced. The printing trade developed its own customs and traditions, including its own conventions about the employment of labour. We can deduce some of this from contemporary records of relationships between masters and men, and some from printed sources. By the late seventeenth century, the master printers—the owners of printing houses—were actually under pressure from two directions. Their customers were looking for the best deal they could get; and so were their employees. In particular, the compositors who set the type (a laborious and skilled handcraft process until almost the end of the nineteenth century) were nearly always in demand, and they could command high wages whatever the official regulations might say. Moreover, they were, by definition, literate; by the end of the eighteenth century, primordial trade union organizations were negotiating with the employers in an early and successful form of collective bargaining across the London printing trade.

This pressure from within was made worse by the pressure from without. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, some publishers were actually dividing the production of some books between more than one printing house. The reasons for this are a matter for speculation in most cases. In a handful of instances, it was for political reasons; dividing the work made the perpetrators of an undesirable book less easy to trace. Most books, however, had no such inhibitions placed upon them; so called ‘shared printing’ was forced upon their publishers because the small printing houses of the period, limited in both equipment and personnel by official regulation, were also limited in the amount of work they could do. In a free market, some would have expanded; but the limitations on size were also a limitation on the capacity to generate income. Printers, despite the demand for their services, became essentially the agents of publishers. By the middle of the seventeenth century it was the latter who dominated the formal structures of the London book trade.

They did not, however, call themselves ‘publishers’. The common term of the period was ‘stationer’, later displaced by ‘bookseller’. The terminology is confusing, but its use has something to commend it. In seventeenth-century London, ‘stationer’ was almost a technical term. It was used to describe a member of the Stationers’ Company of London, the trade guild to which all members of the book trade (including the printers) were legally obliged to belong. In other words, ‘stationer’ was the generic term for members of the book trades. The ‘bookseller’ was a practitioner of some of those trades. He (and occasionally she) was engaged primarily in the selling of books, but was often also responsible for financing their production. A seventeenth-century London bookseller sold books from a shop which was typically in the premises in which he and his family lived. There were scores of such shops in an area around St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London, and others scattered elsewhere in the city, as well as one or more in most of the major provincial towns. We know little about the stock which they carried, but enough to know that it was limited. Much of it was probably second-hand, or at least old. The new books were typically those which had been produced for the bookseller himself.

As a producer, however, the bookseller was not the physical producer of the book, as the printer or the binder. He was the organizer and financier of the production, that is, what we now call the publisher. This was reflected in the imprint which appeared on the title page; this example is typical:

‘London: Printed by Ruth Raworth for Humfrey Moseley, and are to be sold at the signe of the Princes Arms in Pauls Church-yard. 1645.’

The printer (Raworth) is named; the bookseller (Moseley) is not merely named, but has his address printed precisely so that the purchaser knew where to obtain the book (the shop whose sign was the Prince’s Arms, located in the churchyard around St Paul’s Cathedral). We should also note the words ‘by’ and ‘for’; from these prepositions it is clear that Raworth is Moseley’s agent, working to his orders. These imprints encapsulate the relationships within the book trade, and it is from them that historians first began to reconstruct their understanding of how the trade worked.

The key question which must now be addressed, and one which is central to an understanding of how publishing came to be a distinctive activity, is to understand why and how the bookseller (Moseley in this case) came to be in possession of the text which was printed for him and sold by him. There was, of course, only one possible source for a ‘new’ book—an author. In the example which we have chosen, Moseley explains how this happened; he claims to be an admirer of Milton’s poems and implies that he persuaded him to release them for publication:

‘The Authors more peculiar excellency in these studies, was too well known to conceal his Papers, or to keep me from attempting to solicit them from him.’

This sentence appears in the preface, which is headed ‘The stationer to the reader’ and signed ‘Humph. Moseley’. It leaves no doubt as to who is in charge of the enterprise.

The dominant role of the bookseller in this transaction is unusual only in being so explicit. The underlying assumption, however, is that Moseley has acquired these poems from Milton through some mechanism which has conferred on him the right to publish them. At least by implication, therefore, Milton is also a participant in the enterprise. Convention and regulation already existed which dictated the parameters within which the bookseller and the author had to work. Inside the book trade, there was an established system which allowed stationers (that is, members of the Stationers’ Company) to claim ‘ownership’ of particular titles, or—to use the trade term—’copies’. In soliciting his work from him, Moseley had, in effect, obtained from Milton the right to print (or to have printed) these poems; in contemporary trade terminology, Moseley now owned the ‘rights in the copy’.

The development of the concept and practice of ‘rights in copies’ was long and complex. It originated in part from the desire of the crown to control what was published, and in part from the desire of the stationers to regulate their own trade in an orderly way. Since its earliest days (it was formally established by Royal Charter in 1557), the Stationers’ Company had maintained a register of rights in copies owned by its members; these were variously acquired, but so far as the Company was concerned, the essential point was the ownership conferred the unique right to print a particular copy and it was that fact which recorded by registration in their ‘entry book’ or ‘register book’ as it was variously known at different times. Although this was essentially a matter of internal self-regulation for the book trade, it could never be wholly so and, by and large, the operations of the Company were supported by royal and ecclesiastical authorities as the system developed between the 1560s and the 1630s. Within the trade, the system survived the collapse of royal authority in 1640; indeed it was if anything re-enforced by the need for effective self-regulation. Moseley’s publication of Milton’s poems reflects the operation of a stable and well-regulated commercial system.

During England’s 20 years of civil war and republican rule (1640-1660), censorship of the press became increasingly stringent. This served to give even greater prominence to the regulatory regime within the book trade itself, and when the monarchy was restored the Stationers’ Company’s powers were confirmed by statute in the Printing Act of 1662. For the next 40 years, the regulation of the book trade and attitudes to it swung with the political pendulum. For much of the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), the 1662 statute was in force, although it was allowed to lapse in 1679. The date was significant: the attempt to exclude Charles’s Roman Catholic brother from the throne gave all political factions a good reason for wanting a less regulated press which they could use for propaganda purposes. When his brother did indeed succeed, as James II (1685-1688), the Act was reintroduced, but it barely survived the more liberal regime which followed after the Glorious Revolution (1688-89) and the establishment of an essentially parliamentary system of government. The Printing Act finally lapsed in 1694, and since that date, except very occasionally in time of war, there has been no state-controlled pre-publication censorship in the United Kingdom. The book trade’s arrangements for the control of rights in copies, however, did survive the end of the legislation under which they were, in part, regulated. After a period in which the anarchy feared by the trade establishment never quite happened, an act of parliament in 1709 brought the concept (although not the term) of copyright into the sphere of the statute law.

The existence of a legal basis for rights in copies was of great long-term importance for the book trade. It was now possible to use the civil and criminal courts to protect the ownership and use of rights; throughout the eighteenth century, the trade became increasingly litigious as a consequence. There was, however, another dimension. The 1709 Act imposed a time limit on the existence of rights—seven years in the first instance, with a further seven in certain circumstances. This was to become a common characteristic of copyright law all over the world, and indeed it still is. When the period of copyright expired, the copy is in what is now known as ‘public domain’, and can be freely used by anyone and disseminated in any form. Between the 1730s and the 1770s, some of the most important members of the London book trade used the courts over and over again to question the meaning of legislation; their efforts were doomed to failure, for although the language could be argued to be obscure and perhaps ambiguous, the intention was plain. In a landmark judgement in 1774, the House of Lords confirmed that rights in copies existed only for a maximum period of 14 years after first publication.

This judgement was one of several factors which drove the final separation between bookselling and publishing in the London book trade. The confirmation of the time limits on copy ownership forced publishers to look for new books to publish and not to rely on reprinting old favourites. Reprinting could of course continue—and it did—but it was now openly competitive. The monopolistic attitudes which had pervaded the trade almost since its very beginning were no longer legally acceptable or commercially viable. The effect was to make publishers more entrepreneurial, and not all of those who had dominated the trade in the mid-eighteenth century managed this transition well. It was indeed a radical change, for between the mid-1770s and the mid-1820s the pre-industrial craft-based book trade was transformed into a publishing industry for an increasingly mechanized society with a vibrant and expanding economy.

This transformation can be exemplified in the histories of three famous names, all of which still survive: Longman, Murray and Macmillan. The house of Longman dates back to 1727, although in fact even that was a continuation of an older bookselling business which had its origins in the late seventeenth century. For much of the eighteenth century, successive generations of Longmans were both publishers (in the modern sense) and retail booksellers. They were owners, or part owners, of the rights in hundreds of titles, including some of the great bestsellers of the age. From the mid-1770s onwards, however, and particularly after about 1800, the firm began to concentrate on publishing new titles and keeping its popular books in print for as long as they were in copyright. At the same time, they slowly abandoned their retail business. The transformation from eighteenth-century bookseller-publisher to nineteenth-century publishing house was complete.

John Murray came into publishing from the outside. Almost from the very beginning when, like the first Thomas Longman, he bought an existing business (1768), he concentrated on publishing new books. He had little choice, for he had no stock of inherited copies, and it was difficult for an outsider to buy his way into the charmed circle of the copyright owners. He was fortunate, for his business career (he died in 1793) coincided with the period when the London book trade was becoming more open to entrepreneurs such as him. He published hundreds of books, and barely engaged in retailing at all; his son followed him into what was essentially a publishing house. Murray can be argued to be perhaps the first successful businessman in the London book trade who was primarily—and for much of the time solely—a publisher.

For the Macmillan brothers, entering the trade in the 1840s, there was a stark choice. After an apprenticeship to a traditional bookseller in Cambridge, Alexander and Daniel established a shop there, and began to publish books. They recognized that a London base was essential if this enterprise was to be successful, and after an abortive attempt in the 1840s there was a gradual shift of emphasis until the whole publishing business was in London by 1863. Alexander Macmillan (his brother had died in 1857) had recognized the inevitable. Publishing and bookselling were now wholly separate activities; if a single firm was to pursue both, it had to treat them effectively as separate businesses. While there might be a good retail trade in Cambridge, publishing was an essentially metropolitan activity, as it always had been.

These three great names of British publishing expose much of the story of how publishing and bookselling came to be separate enterprises. The collapse of the legal regime which protected the eighteenth-century copy-owning booksellers forced them to reconsider the conventions within which they worked. Publishing now needed enterprise, entrepreneurship and a concentration on the most profitable activity. That activity was the publication of successful new books. Longman made that transition; many others did not. Those who came in from outside were not hidebound by the conventions of centuries; they were entrepreneurs from the beginning, and found it comparatively easy to compete in a trade which was conservative and reluctant to change. John Murray was such a man. Within a generation or so, the transformation wrought at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had itself become the conventional structure of the trade. The Macmillans could be booksellers and publishers, but they had to see the two trades as what they were—separate and different. The printerdominated trade of the sixteenth century had thus become what it has remained—an industry dominated by its capitalists and primary producers, the publishers who control the oldest and still the most familiar of the knowledge industries.

The Language of Publishing

In the West, publishing has always been an international activity. As we have seen, the earliest printed books, like so many of their manuscript predecessors in Europe, were written in Latin, the common language of the educated elite. The emergence of the vernaculars as literary and official languages in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had many causes, of which indeed the invention and dissemination of printing may be argued to have been one. The essential point for our purposes, however, is that for whatever reason there was a gradual shift from Latin to the major vernaculars as the languages of printing from about 1550 onwards. English led the way, but French and German were not far behind. In the Protestant countries of northern Europe, the vernacular translations of the Bible had an immense influence on the form and even the respectability of the languages into which it was translated, and indeed on vernacular literacy. The vernacularization of printing was slow and uneven. Latin continued to be the language of scholarship until late in the seventeenth century; Newton and Descartes—pioneers in their respective intellectual spheres—wrote major works in Latin precisely because it enabled them to address an international audience. But they were the last generation of natural philosophers for whom Latin was the normal means of communication.

Long before Latin was displaced as the language of scholarship, it had been superseded in trade and even in diplomacy. Trade had always been conducted in the vernacular, and indeed printed guides to foreign languages are found from the sixteenth century onwards. It is one mark of the ever-growing importance of Britain’s international trade that the teaching of modern languages became a profitable enterprise in the eighteenth century, and perhaps earlier. Diplomats continued to use Latin in some circumstances until well into the eighteenth century; certainly in Catholic Europe it inevitably survived because it was the universal language of the Church and was used even in its secular correspondence. The vernaculars, however, were rapidly gaining ground; the publication of authoritative grammars and dictionaries gave them a greater formality and authority, and their use for official purposes in government, administration and justice firmly implanted them in the work of the state. As the major vernacular languages became respectable, their use became normal; it was a virtuous circle.

This development, however, left publishers with a problem, for the potential market for a book was now confined by language as well as by subject matter. Translations inevitably became more common. Of course, translation had always been practised, and long ante-dates the invention of printing. Indeed, Greek texts were known in medieval Europe largely through Latin translations of Arabic translations of the originals written in a language which was unknown even to most scholars. Caxton’s output of English books was inaugurated and continued to be dominated by translations from French. By the middle of the sixteenth century, many major texts in both Latin and newly rediscovered Greek had been translated into English, French and other languages. Texts were also of course translated from one vernacular to another. The first English book to be widely translated was Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, first published in 1678, and translated into Dutch, French, German and Welsh before the end of the century.

Translation thus became the normal means of written communication between speakers of different languages. There was, however, another development which ran in parallel with this: the search for a common language to replace Latin. The choice of language followed political and cultural power. In eighteenth-century Europe, the dominant language was French. There were good reasons for this. From the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to the outbreak of revolution in 1789, France was, despite many challenges, the predominant land power in Europe. During the earlier part of this period, her music, painting and architecture dominated Western culture. Politically, the absolutist monarchy symbolized by Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715), and less convincingly continued by his successors up to 1789, was a model which was imitated in style and substance across Europe from the Protestant kingdoms of Scandinavia to the great monarchies of Austria and Prussia. Even the French opposition became fashionable: Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire, writing in their native tongue, created a new mode of liberal thought which was as influential as the political system which it helped to undermine. Much of their writing was indeed translated into other languages, but it was also widely circulated in the original. Reading and speaking French was as much the mark of a cultured and educated man in the eighteenth century as a knowledge of Latin had been in the sixteenth. English was little known, and English books barely read outside England, at least until late in the century.

Nevertheless, where French had led the way, English eventually followed. Britain inherited France’s mantle of political and cultural domination after the Battle of Waterloo (1815). Throughout much of the nineteenth century, British influence predominated in European affairs, and indeed in many other parts of a world increasingly dominated by European powers. In the 1820s and 1830s, as the English began to travel again after their long confinement during the war against France (1793-1815), publishers in Paris and Leipzig began to publish reprints of English books both old and new. Some were authorized editions and some were not, but all, despite being intended for English speakers, helped to create a large body of English material which was easily available in continental Europe. Gradually, knowledge of the English language spread among Europe’s elites. English became a commonly taught second language in schools in France, Germany and Scandinavia. And when Britain’s political power began to implode in the middle of the twentieth century, her language remained as the common currency of business across much of the continent.

The spread of English outside Europe began in the sixteenth century, and followed trade and the flag for the next 300 years. In itself, this is not surprising. Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands took their languages to their colonies in the Americas, Asia and Africa. Indeed, they survive there today. Spanish is the predominant language of the whole of central and South America except Brazil (where Portuguese prevails), Surinam (Dutch) and Guyana (English). This is a straightforward legacy of colonialism and empire, but it is noteworthy that it is almost 200 years since Spain withdrew from her colonies on the mainland of America. The use of Spanish has not only survived; it has been embedded in the national cultures which emerged in the wake of decolonization. The importance of Spanish in the Western hemisphere has been further enhanced by both the legacy of Spanish colonial settlements north of Rio Grande (especially in California and Texas), and by a huge inflow of Latin American immigrants into the United States during the last 100 years. In Los Angeles, Miami, New York and many lesser cities, Spanish is at least the equal of English as the language of the streets in many areas.

The linguistic legacies of the European empires seem destined to outlive the empires themselves by centuries if the example of Spanish is a foretaste of what it to come. Certainly, French still flourishes in more than 50 countries which are or were French colonies. Dutch residually survives in Indonesia, and modified into Afrikaans is an official language in South Africa. There are even pockets of German speakers in southern Africa, over 80 years after Germany’s African empire was handed over to others. Russian is still widely known in the former Soviet satellite countries in eastern Europe (although its use is often rejected on principle), and is widely used in the former Soviet republics in western and central Asia. But above all, English has become something akin to a universal global language.

Four European languages have exceeded all others in their migration around the world. The figures in Table 1.1 are probably underestimates, and of course they change all the time. It is clear that English has far outstripped the other languages which have spread beyond their native continent. Indeed, the estimate of 572 million English speakers does not take into account the millions more who have a limited knowledge of the language, or who are learning it for purposes of education or business; when these people are included a widely accepted estimate is of the order of 1200 to 1500 million. The widespread knowledge of English throughout Europe and the wider world from the middle of nineteenth century onwards explains much of the structure of the modern publishing industry which we shall analyse in later chapters of this book. Underpinning that, of course, is a factor far more potent than fashions among cultured Europeans of 150 years ago, for Britain’s language is also America’s language. One of the keys to understanding the modern international publishing industry lies in the simple fact that all but a tiny percentage of the 270 million inhabitants of the world’s predominant political and economic power are either monoglot English-speakers or speak it as their first or second language.

Table 1.1 The European World Languages
Language Estimated number of speakers (in millions)
(Source: see note 28)
English 572
Spanish 300
French 170
Russian 150
Dutch 15.3

Publishing and language are symbiotically connected. When a language is known to tens or hundreds of millions of literate people, there is a market for its books, magazines and newspapers. The more readers there are, the larger the total market, and the greater the likelihood of a viable number of potential readers even for the most specialized literature. This in turn makes such languages attractive to those who, while not being native speakers themselves, seek an audience among those who read the language. Since the middle of the twentieth century this has increasingly meant, in practice, one thing only: that more and more authors, especially of academic and professional books, write in English regardless of where they are in the world, or what language they use in their daily lives. Until World War II, German was as important as English as a medium for scientific publication. But the diaspora of German scientists in the 1930s, and the physical destruction of the German scientific and industrial infrastructure in 1942-45, brought this to an end. British and American companies are not the only publishers who benefit from the dominance of English. There is a significant trade in the publication of English books in India, for example, where it is the largest of more than a dozen publishing languages, and there are publishing industries in all the major English-speaking countries such as Australia, South Africa and Canada. But the world’s largest book market, defined by language, is very largely supplied by the two countries which have the largest number of native English speakers, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The other world languages are, of course, also used by publishers. Spanish in particular is of increasing importance, partly because of its domination of Latin America, but also because of its rapid expansion in the United States and the political connotations which that carries. It is particularly significant that there is a large and growing market for children’s books in Spanish in the USA, suggesting continued future growth. Ironically, this growth is probably benefiting the American publishing industry rather than that of the Hispanophone countries themselves. Spanish-language publishing in the USA is, however, something of an exception. The harsh fact is that for most countries in which one of the European world languages is used for cultural and educational purposes, book needs are largely met through imports from the language’s native country. Indeed, the predominance of British and American publishers in the Anglophone world is reenforced by the apparently universal desire to learn English; books for learners of the language (children and adults) are typically imported rather than produced locally.

The only non-European language which has had an impact remotely comparable to that of English, Spanish and French is Chinese. There are well in excess of 1000 million speakers of the various Chinese dialects, although many of them are in countries where the literacy rate is low. Moreover, they are scattered all over east and south-east Asia, and to a lesser extent in the rest of the world. Significant Chinese communities are to be found in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. But there are Chinese communities across the globe from Sydney and San Francisco to Manchester and Milan. This is not, however, the result of Chinese colonialism in the European sense, but rather of what is now called economic migration. Indeed, many of the overseas Chinese communities were founded because people were escaping from China rather than because they were promoting her interests. Since the communist revolution in 1949, the political divide between homeland and overseas Chinese has perhaps grown even greater, and China certainly cannot seek export markets for books (or very much else) among the children of her diaspora. Some recent developments in the use of the Internet to publish Chinese language materials for the international Chinese community only serves to emphasise the fundamental differences with the international English-language market.

All of this leaves those who are not native speakers of a world language, and even worse, those who have no knowledge of such a language, in serious cultural difficulties. This is true even for educated multi-lingual speakers of some of the less commonly known European languages; for speakers of many Asian and most African languages, the problem is acute. They are, to a very great extent, excluded from the process of higher-level communication for professional, economic, educational and cultural purposes.

The Internationalization of Publishing

The growth of the European colonial empires, which reached its apogee in the second half of the nineteenth century, made certain European languages politically predominant over large parts of the world. In turn, this phenomenon created a market for books in those languages far away from their homelands. In a sense, this was even true in the United States, although by the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the book trade in the newly independent republic was becoming genuinely independent of its British ancestor. The trade developed in the USA throughout the nineteenth century, but it was in the period after the Civil War, from 1865 onwards, that the trade, like the country itself, expanded confidently and rapidly. In America, as in Britain, publishing houses were established at that time whose names survive to this day, and some of which still retain their identity even if they have lost their independence.

Relations between the British and American book trades were difficult for much of the nineteenth century. In Europe, there was a rapidly developing regime of international protection for copyright through a series of bilateral treaties which gave mutual recognition to domestic copyright laws. This movement reached its climax in the signature of the Berne Convention in 1886. The basic principle of the Convention—that a book published in any signatory state was fully protected under the copyright laws of all signatory states—was not acceptable to American politicians or publishers. Throughout the century, British authors were subjected to unauthorized reprints of their books by American publishers, from which they derived no financial benefit. Dickens was probably the most famous, and certainly the most vociferous, of those who suffered form this ‘piracy’. It was not until the very end of the century, in 1891, that foreign authors could easily obtain some reasonable protection under American law.

One consequence of the long-running copyright dispute was that British and American publishers were in competition with each other. Partly as a protective measure, a number of British publishers established offices or branches in the United States. Macmillan had a New York branch as early as 1869; Longman followed suit in 1887, and Oxford University Press in 1896. During the same period, some American publishers began to have a presence in London; these included Putnams and Harpers, although they were apparently more interested in acquiring British books to publish in America than they were in selling their American books in Britain. After the end of the copyright difficulties, however, it was not only books which flowed across the Atlantic. The British and American publishing industries began to grow very close to each other. Some of the established branches of British houses in New York gradually transformed themselves into semi-independent companies which published books in their own right. This happened to both Macmillan and Oxford University Press before the end of the nineteenth century. It was not, however, one-way traffic. Chapman and Hall, a venerable London house which was closely associated with Dickens, was in financial trouble by the 1890s, and was badly managed. As part of an attempt to rescue the firm, it became the London agent for John Wiley and Son, an even more venerable American publisher which was beginning to specialize in educational and scientific books. Before long, the Wiley tail was wagging the Chapman and Hall dog. Doubleday Page of New York bought Heinemann of London in 1920, and J. M. Dent was able to continue the distinguished Everyman’s Library only because of a long-term agreement with the New York firm of E. J. Dutton. These were the straws in the wind: American capital was beginning to sustain British publishing.

Fifty years later, the wind had become a gale. Since about 1950, there has been an almost continuous process of takeovers and mergers in the American publishing industry. Where historic names survived, they often did so only as parts of larger organizations. This was the driver of significant cultural change within the industry in the United States itself, but was also a significant factor in the growing internationalization of publishing throughout the world. By the 1980s, eight groups dominated American publishing; by the end of the century, it was six. There were parallel developments in Britain from the late 1970s onwards, although some of the major houses retained their independence for much longer (notably Macmillan) and a few still do (notably Faber and Faber). The creation of conglomerate publishing companies, however, was only one aspect of a multi-faceted process. These companies were competing with each other on a global scale. A traditional understanding that British and American publishers divided the world market in English language books between them collapsed in 1976 under the threat of legal action in the United States. Under a cosy arrangement known as the British Commonwealth Rights Agreement, the American edition of a book was not marketed in the British Commonwealth (except Canada), and the British edition was not sold in North America. This enabled publishers on both sides of the Atlantic to negotiate profitable deals with their opposite numbers for the sale of the American, and British and Commonwealth rights, respectively. The end of the Agreement opened up vast markets to publishers in both countries, which could now only be regulated by contracts with individual authors about the territorial rights in their books. Since the early 1980s, therefore, the vast global market for books in English has seen intensive competition between British and American publishers. It was inevitable that some should fall by the wayside. Gradually the process of conglomeration which had begun in the USA and which was imitated in the United Kingdom became an international phenomenon. From the late 1980s onwards, the publishing conglomerates became transnational and then multinational corporations. There are now key players in English language publishing whose holding companies are based in Germany, France and Australia as well as in Britain and America. The publication of books, like their distribution and sale has become a truly international business.

The dominant position of the multinational conglomerates in the world publishing industry has had many consequences—cultural, economic, educational and political—which we shall encounter regularly throughout this book. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is indeed truly global in scale, although dominated by products in the English language, and hence by publishing companies based in Britain and the United States. Many of the major publishing houses are integrated into companies whose activities take in the printed and broadcast media and the Internet, as well interests which are nothing to do with communications at all. In Chapter Two, we shall try to quantify some of this, as we explore in more detail the current state of the industry which began as small craft-based trade in north-west Europe 500 years ago.