Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Book Review: "The Business of Books"

James Raven has done the book-history community a great service with his newly-published The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade, 1450-1850 (Yale University Press). In a study which is sure to stand as the definitive treatment of the English book business, Raven treats his reader to a detailed and extensive examination of all aspects of the book trade and its people from the beginnings of British publishing through the middle of the nineteenth century.

Raven points out that this is largely a "new and broadly cast" business history, in which he seeks to situate the book trade within the larger economic, social and political climate of England (pg. 4). The focal points here are the printing, publishing and bookselling industries (in their oft-intertwined forms) and the printers, publishers, and booksellers. Given the unfortunate paucity of extant business records, Raven has done a more than admirable job of reconstructing the contours of the trade as it developed.

The portion of the book I enjoyed best was Raven's exquisite walking tour of the mid- to late eighteenth century London bookselling scene - ah, to have strolled Paternoster Row and St. Paul's Churchyard during that time!

A few of the many additional elements covered here include financing and cooperative publishing practices, the growing book export trade, battles over government regulation and reprint rights, advertising competitions, the rise of the secondhand book trade, and ultimately the key changes that would occur to the trade with the arrival of mechanized printing during the middle of the nineteenth century.

Supplemented by nearly sixty pages of detailed footnotes and a twenty-page (but still select!) bibliography, Raven's work offers many additional avenues for inquiry and make an important concluding point - that literary history, book history and related fields are connected in important ways to the larger economic, social and political atmosphere: "For many it is no longer sufficient to consider literature without considering larger publishing strategies, professional networks, and the manner in which booksellers put the work of writers in print and created a literary market" (pg. 378).

A fine study, and highly recommended for those with a serious interest in the first centuries of the English book trade.

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