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?”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.