Takin’ Care of Business: Exploring the Early American Book Trade

We spend so much time in the classroom discussing the value of literature as an artform that sometimes it’s easy to forget that literature is an industry and books are commodities. Most authors depend on sales as a source of income and a guarantee that their messages reach audiences.

I first recognized the importance of addressing the economic side of literature several years ago when discussing Susanna Rowson’s sentimental novel Charlotte Temple, first published in the United States in 1794. When I mentioned that Charlotte Temple is considered the first American “bestselling” (to use the term anachronistically) novel, several students asked questions like “What made a novel a ‘bestseller’?” and “How many copies needed to be sold?” These questions then led to broader questions concerning the early American book trade, such as “Where did people buy books?” and “How much did books cost?”

Charlotte Temple

Although it’s difficult to establish a complete picture of how the early American book trade looked, due to lacking records and missing sales figures, much concrete information does exist on the subject. I recommend James Gilreath’s article “American Book Distribution” (1986) and Cathy N. Davidson’s chapter “The Book in the New Republic” from Revolution and the Word (1986, revised 2004) as useful and comprehensive introductory resources on the history of the early American book trade.

Revolution and the Word

What follows is an outline of key points Gilreath and Davidson address in relation to the most common questions my students have posed about the book trade. Ideally, these bite-size factoids can be easily integrated into classroom discussion.

What role did printers play in the creation of early American books?

According to Davidson, “The printer’s main business, in short, was to turn the author’s manuscript into a salable commodity and then to sell it” (79). Printers decided which texts should be published and determined both the quantity to produce and the cost to the consumer.

Davidson also reveals the collaborative relationship between printers and authors: “The printer’s artistic control usually began with his deciphering the original handwritten text, for rarely would he query the author about smudged, illegible words or problematic passages” (79). Printers then proofread and edited manuscripts when converting them to print.

Additionally, printers were responsible for the “physical layout of both the page and the book as a whole,” selecting the typeface and utilizing various type sizes and spacing to emphasize certain passages (Davidson 79). Davidson notes, “A fairly innocuous sentence could easily be given a more sensational cast by strategic italicizing or capitalizing of words such as SEDUCTION or INCEST” (79). Such strategies helped to sell books.

American printing press 1780s

How were early American novels sold and distributed?

Distribution problems were huge obstacles in the sale of early American novels. Since methods of transportation were often limited or unreliable, the distribution of books in the 18th Century was usually local and centered around major cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The distribution of books gradually increased with the improvement and further development of roads and canals. Also, large quantities of books were imported from England in the late 17th and 18th Centuries. Printers developed cooperative networks of distribution with other printers both domestically and overseas.

Davidson and Gilreath identify four major methods for the distribution and sale of books in early America: bookstores, libraries, book agents and hawkers, and subscriptions.

Bookstores: Bookstores existed in both major cities and rural areas. Gilreath notes, however, that bookstores often “depended on the sale of nonbook items for a substantial portion of their income” (516). Gilreath continues: “In urban areas the nonbook goods were stationary materials; in rural areas such goods were general store stock such as shovels, seeds, and dry goods” (516).

Libraries: Both Gilreath and Davidson emphasize the increasingly important role of libraries, specifically in relation to the distribution of fictional works. Davidson explains that by 1800, “most larger cities had several libraries catering to different classes and different tastes; even small towns generally boasted of at least one library…[making] books both accessible and affordable to a rapidly growing and largely new class of readers” (88). Early American libraries came in three varieties: social libraries, institutional libraries, and circulating libraries. Students are often surprised by the way some of these libraries differ from modern-day libraries.

Benjamin Franklin founded the first social library in Philadelphia in 1731. By 1800, 376 social libraries existed in the United States. According to Davidson, social libraries typically charged a small annual membership fee and sometimes required the purchase of shares, which could cost up to $20.

Institutional libraries were usually academic libraries linked with colleges; therefore, they weren’t accessible to the general public. According to Gilreath, such libraries “were built by the donation of estates rather than by an aggressive book-purchasing program that sought to measure its clients’ reading interests” (524).

Davidson defines the circulating library as “a commercial library (typically owned by a bookseller) that stocked the most popular books of the day and rented them at terms affordable even by common laborers” (89). Major circulating libraries, such as the Philadelphia Circulating Library, charged $6 annually and “frequently allowed subscribers to pay their subscriptions by the year, half-year, quarter, or even month—a concession to those who might not have much ready cash on hand” (Davidson 89). Gilreath notes that since circulating libraries often carried a high number of fictional works, it “suggests that Americans were interested in imaginative literature but did not think that it had enough permanent value to justify the purchase of these books for personal collections” (525). Novels were often perceived as a “commodity that could be leased for a brief period and then returned to a vendor,” and such an attitude, Gilreath believes, played a major role in the “struggles of the American writer” throughout the 19th Century.

Book Agents and Book Hawkers: Agents and hawkers were essentially travelling salesmen who ensured that books reached the reading public outside of major cities. According to Davidson, the difference between agents and hawkers is in areas of distribution. Agents concentrated on “larger and more accessible country towns” (83) while hawkers “supplied booksellers in little towns or villages or dealt directly with individual buyers who otherwise had no ready access to the book trade” (82).

Book Hawker

Subscriptions: For printers, the preferred method of book distribution was subscription publication, which entailed consumers advance ordering books, so printers could accurately assess how many copies of a book to print based on the preestablished demand. Printers could also determine whether there was even enough interest in a book to merit its publication.

Discussing post-Civil War publishing, Gilreath describes the benefit of subscription publication as follows: “ Although traditional publishers characteristically printed only about 2,500 copies of a book and kept large numbers of titles in print, subscription book publishers concentrated on fewer titles but issued them in numbers far exceeding those published by traditional trade” (554).

Often book agents and hawkers were responsible for travelling from town to town seeking subscriptions for upcoming publications. According to William Powell, “Subscribers to books undoubtedly considered themselves patrons of the press and were fully aware of the fact that only through their common support could the books be issued” (qtd. in Gilreath 535-6). In the 19th Century, Mark Twain even commented on the importance of subscriptions in the sales of his novels: “When a subscription book of mine sells 60,000, I always think I know wither 50,000 of them went. They went to people who don’t visit bookstores” (qtd. in Gilreath 557).

How much did novels cost in early America?

Early American novels were expensive, which accounts for the dramatic rise in popularity of libraries. According to Davidson, the average late 18th-century novel would have cost about four times more than a hardcover novel today. Davidson adds, however, that a “more meaningful measure” would be as follows: “In 1800, a carpenter in Massachusetts earned $1 per day, an unskilled laborer half as much. A pound of sugar cost $.13, a pair of leather shoes $.80, and cotton cloth $1 a yard. A novel typically cost between. $.75 and $1.50” (85). For the cost of a $1 novel like Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn, the average day laborer could purchase a bushel of potatoes and a half bushel of corn (Davidson 85).

Davidson interestingly highlights what book costs would mean specifically to schoolteachers. Davidson uses the example of one 18th-century schoolteacher who kept comprehensive accounts of his finances. Ethan Allen Greenwood earned $3 a month at his first teaching job and $14 a month at his second, and his estimated expenses (including $.37 per dinner at a local tavern, $.20 per week for his laundry, $2.75 per month for firewood, $1.12 for a stagecoach ride) left little room for buying novels. However, records reveal that Greenwood “read nearly a volume a day even during his poorest student days” since he, as Davidson explains, “largely borrowed these books by joining three libraries” with low membership fees (87).

The cost of novels didn’t substantially decrease until the rise of mass printing technologies and the development of cheap, easily accessible paperback editions of novels in the 1830s and 40s.

Printing Press 6 Cyl

What made a novel a “bestseller” in early America?

Since the term “bestseller” didn’t actually exist until 1902, seven years after the first “list” of high-selling books was produced (Sutherland 17), applying a term like “bestseller” to early American novels really just means that a novel sold a much higher number of copies compared to the average.

The average printer in the 18th Century, as Davidson notes, “hoped that [a] volume might sell several hundred copies, enough to reimburse the production costs and perhaps pay something over” (75). in 1794, Matthew Carey initially printed 1000 copies (a large run for the time) of the first edition of Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, but he had no way of knowing how popular the novel would become. By the early 19th Century, Rowson’s novel sold almost 40,000 copies, making it the highest selling American novel until the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Of course, it’s important to remember that Stowe was publishing after the advent of paperback printing.

While Rowson’s novel sold tremendously, her profits from the novel were not substantial enough for her family to live on, and she, like many other early American writers, did have to supplement novel writing with alternate means of income. James Fenimore Cooper is one of the first early American “bestsellers” who was able to live entirely on his income as a writer. Cooper sold up to 40,000 copies of his novels each year, earning an average yearly income of $6500 (Davidson 75).


Works Cited:

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Oxford UP, 2004.

Gilreath, James. “American Book Distribution.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 95, 1986, pp. 501-83.

Sutherland, John. Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2007.


Treasures from the Archives

Note: PALS is kicking off its 2017-2018 year with this introduction to working with archives and archivists by guest writer Cheylon Woods. Cheylon is the head archivist at the Ernest Gaines Center and has worked with other archives in the past. Here she gives us some insight and pointers for bring the archives into our course planning and our students to the archives. Also see librarian Kelli Hansen’s post from last year on Collaborating with Your Special Collections Librarian.

In the last five years, I have noticed the word “archive” being used…a lot. From archives on DIY blogs to individuals discussing their “personal archives” in their homes, a general concept of an “archive” seems to be catching on, and I couldn’t be happier…kinda… I am an archivist, and personally I find archives completely fascinating! I love the fact that people seem to be learning what an archive is, but I find myself wondering if they really understand what archives are and what they offer, or do they think it is just a term to apply to where they keep their “old stuff” (spoiler, it’s the latter). Personally, I am of the mindset that some conversation is better than no conversation, so I am happy to take the idea that an archive is simply a place for “old stuff” and expand on that, because archives are so much more. Luckily, I am in a perfect position (being an archivist and all) to use my experience and collection to advocate for the support and use of archives.

South Dakota State Archives
South Dakota State Historical Society Archives
A brief background

First, I think I should start by introducing myself and the archive in which I work. My name is Cheylon Woods, and I am the Head of the Ernest J. Gaines Center located at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I have a background in History, Political Science (B.A.), Heritage Resources (M.A.), and Library Science (MLIS). Needless to say, I love “old stuff” and what that “old stuff” tells us about how we have always interacted with others during any period of human existence.  I like reading about it, I like talking about it, and, most importantly, I like preserving it.  The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a manuscript archive. The center was opened in 2010, and its mission is “to foster research and scholarship on the life and works of Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, to archive, house, preserve, protect and utilize the ‘Collection of Ernest J. Gaines,’ and to make the collection available to scholars in perpetuity.”

While the above mission was written specifically for the Ernest J. Gaines Center, at its heart is the purpose of all archives. The spaces where “old stuff” is stored are treasure troves of information, and potential projects, just waiting to be used. Archives and archivists have a unique calling to ensure that history is not forgotten. Such a statement sounds so lofty, “to ensure that history is not forgotten.” But that is the easiest way to explain it, and not explain it at the same time. I could drill down and get really detailed about what exactly archivists and archives do, but what is more important to understand is WHY we do what we do. As a society, when we think of “historic” documents, we set the bar really high, but archives and archivists have a much broader approach.

When people think about historical records they normally think about “iconic” records, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, or government records, like census reports and draft records, but archivists also see your grandmother’s letters or cookbook as historic. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a perfect example of the broad definition of historic when discussing archives. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a manuscript archive, and the majority of our collection is the multiple drafts of the published works written by Dr. Ernest J. Gaines. We do not have any records about the plantation where he was raised, or community in which he grew up—things that are easy to understand as historic—but we have the letters written to him by students and inmates about how his work affected them. We have his research that influenced his books, journals that he helped edit, gifts given to him by other writers and researchers.

While, on the surface, it may not seem like this information has historical value, looking at it through the greater lens of the Black Arts Movement and the social movements happening during the decades Gaines chooses to write about provides a researcher with connections and shows how something as small as A lesson Before Dying  can have a lasting effect on a reader.I n the Gaines Center Archives, there are a series of letters from incarcerated men about the Jefferson. Jefferson is the character in the book A Lesson Before Dying who is sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit. in some of the correspondence, the writers expressed  how the evolution of Jefferson reminded them about their own humanity as they served their time in some de-humanizing spaces.

The records created by people,  be it a grandmother in Detroit during the 1940s or a world renowned author like Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, are important and they provide an interesting context to the dates and places memorized in class. Everything that happens in “history” happens to the people who happen to occupy that particular intersection of time and space, and the records they create give those events context. Without context, it just feels like “timey whimy wibbly wobbly” stuff;  archives, archivists, and the records they preserve help untangle history by saving relatable experiences.  Prior to completing my MLIS, I was am IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Science) Fellow at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.  During my internship I worked with birth records that date back to the turn of the century, an African American family that dated back to emancipation, and civil rights flyers. All of these documents put faces in the spaces where Alabama History took place. Reading letters and wills discussing how property (including slaves) were to be divided after death, or looking at the original charter for a university or state college illustrate decisions that affect present day society.

How to use archives and archivists in the classroom

Outside of history, using archives and working with archivists can seem daunting, if not impossible. This is furthest from the truth. Archives are spaces that were designed to preserve the human footprint in history, and human interaction has an effect on every aspect of society, be it the arts or STEM.

In all of his work, Dr. Gaines’ writes about technology and mechanizing the agricultural spaces. If a STEM student or educator was so inclined, one could look at the Dr. Gaines’s manuscripts and identify how the inclusion of tractors affected the communities who traditionally farmed  “by hand”, or consider the concept of rotating crops and how it not only had benefits for the soil, but also created a type of calendar for the people who lived in the quarters.  Records of oil drilling and infrastructure in a municipal archive or university archive could be used to evaluate the effects of certain projects have on communities, and how future innovation can benefit or harm a community of interest.

If you are in literature, you can assign a project that asks your students to use their archive to write a fictional story based on someone in one of your college’s or community archive’s collections. Special Archives (like mine) can also be used beyond the scope of their collection mission. One of the more interesting artifacts housed in the Ernest J. Gaines Center is script (a type of currency) from Riverlake Plantation, which is where Dr. Ernest J. Gaines was raised. I use the script to explain how people were paid in the quarters. This currency could not be used in any other location except Riverlake Plantation, and, during class tours,  is a great example of the hardships people faced under the tenancy and sharecropping systems. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is mostly used by the English Department, but his stories could easily be incorporated in other fields, like Education, History, or Social Services. His short story “A Long Day In November”,and the associated manuscripts, have been used in education classes to explain why new teachers should be empathetic to their students. The characters Dr. Gaines creates and how they evolve can be studied (without going through IRB) for a number of types of papers or used as teaching tools. If you work at a university, you can set up visits with your archivist to discuss collections that relate to your course, and if you work in K-12, local archives are great field trips, and most have some sort of educational outreach programming in their repertoire.  The best thing about archives and archivists is that we can be used, and we want to be used, in almost any way that suits you. If you are not sure, don’t be afraid to ask your local archivist, I am sure they will be excited to be invited into your class.

In conclusion

Honestly, archives are really cool places. We are more than a place for “old stuff” or people who “organize old stuff” ( we do that too). We are people and places that can help you create more robust assignments. We understand the very complex nature of humans and pour over boxes and boxes of the things they created, and are currently creating, documenting their lives. We are places where no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten, and no movement, fandom, organization, or entity is forgotten. We are places where people matter because we exist because of people. People create records, even if they are on a corporate level, and those records speak volumes about the society that produced them.

Archives can be your best resource if you choose to use them. Not only are they full of cool things, a treasure trove one may say, but they are full of cool people who can help you become an expert on all of their cool things. All those boxes are filled with lessons, and they are just waiting for you to pair them with all of your syllabi, and one day (hopefully) they will be filled with your records as well.

Contributor Bio

professional.photograph.cheylon.woods (1).jpgCheylon Woods, Assistant Professor and Archivist/Head of Ernest J. Gaines Center, received her MLIS from LSU. After completion of her MA in Heritage Resources from Northwestern State University, she was awarded an IMLS (Institute of Museum & Library Studies) fellowship through HistoryMarkers (oral history archive based out of Chicago) where she was assigned to work as an Archivist at the Alabama State Department of Archives and History. She actively worked with communities and prominent figures in the region to fill in information gaps related to African American history in the state of Alabama. Cheylon also received a dual BA degree in History and Political Science from Louisiana Tech University. She is a member of Phi Alpha Theta, Society of American Archivists, Louisiana Library Association, and Association for the Study of African American Life and History. She has presented at annual meetings for Society of American Archivists and worked on numerous public programs for the Alabama Department of Archives and History specializing in preservation and displaying historical documents and artifacts.