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The book as a commodity

Raven, J (2009) 'The book as a commodity.' In: UNSPECIFIED, (ed.) The Cambridge: History of the Book in Britain Volume 5 1695-1830. UNSPECIFIED, 85 - 117. ISBN 9780521810173

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Print and consumption, Commercial ingenuity dominates the history of printing and publishing in Britain in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and in many ways booksellers – but also authors and readers – came to treat the various products of the printing press more as market commodities, more as goods directed to specific audiences. Such promotional developments must be evaluated, however, against a continuing production regime characterized by the extreme variability of the size and price of the printed text, by multiple but modestly sized reprintings of successful titles (instead of ambitious single print runs), and by the manufacture of many non-commercial books (in the sense that full costs were not always recovered from sale). Above all, the price of new and reprinted books was modulated for much of the period by the effective cartelization of the trade in which booksellers’ protection of reprinting rights maintained monopoly prices in England (although not in Ireland and only ineffectively in Scotland, where booksellers led the challenge against English claims to perpetual copyright). With increasing effect before the momentous legal challenges of the 1770s (but also residually thereafter), leading bookseller-publishers maintained prices, and hence the primary determinant of access to new literature, by the successful assertion of their property rights. Book ‘commodification’ certainly did not automatically mean cheap print. Much popular literature was reduced in price by the mass production and reprinting of books and magazines in the late eighteenth century, and even more notably after the advent of steam-powered printing in the early nineteenth century, but many bookseller-publishers continued to prosper under the protection of jealously guarded reproduction monopolies (even if many of them were now technically legally unenforceable). Other consumer goods besides books and print were, of course, eagerly taxed by government but none, before at least 1774, were so subject to state-protected price fixing. This, it has been argued, even encouraged the rationing of supply to the market. In effect, such practices positioned books as both consumer and luxury goods; many books promoted as typical products of the eighteenth-century consumer revolution were grossly overpriced. Many publications, reliant not just on literary content but on design and modishness, also created great fortunes for the most successful of their commercial producers. The other, most obvious feature of this publishing regime was that those who might be deemed the original manufacturers, the authors, largely failed to benefit from the market boom.

Item Type: Book Section
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General)
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities > History, Department of
Depositing User: Jim Jamieson
Date Deposited: 12 Sep 2011 13:38
Last Modified: 07 Apr 2021 10:15

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