A Short History of Book Publishing

From Gutenberg to eBooks and More

Have you ever wondered how the evolution of book publishing went from printing books one at a time in basements, to niche publishing houses in major cities, and finally to worldwide multimedia conglomerates? Look no further. With the help of several books and websites, my English major background, and of course Wikipedia (thank goodness that blackout only lasted a day), we present to you the highlights of the past six centuries of book publishing.

It’s difficult to imagine what life would be like without bookstores, Amazon, or even public libraries. But until Gutenberg’s printing press, few people were able to get their hands on books of any kind. Not only was the public quite illiterate, but they also couldn’t afford books, and there wasn't a large selection on the market. A religious text by Thomas à Kempis titled The Imitation of Christ was the first “bestseller” of the Middle Ages, and went through nearly 100 editions between 1471 and 1500. Not too shabby, but also probably not too interesting. By the end of the sixteenth century, printing presses had spread throughout Europe, though much of the publishing was still religion oriented and funded by wealthy patrons.

The 1600s brought about the rise of the novel, much to the dismay of the Church. While printing had been a wonderful way to get the Bible into more hands, the publishing of secular works was frowned upon. More and more regulations were placed on publishing, but this couldn’t stop the tide of printers and authors. By the 1620s printing became much cheaper due to new typeface technology and soon thereafter the publishers won the day.

Seventeenth and eighteenth century readers got maybe 3,000 titles per year, and at that time the Stationer’s Company of London had monopoly over British publishing. Founded as a guild of text writers, bookbinders, and booksellers (our humble publishing beginnings), the company reigned supreme for more than 300 years and brought about the first copyright law of Great Britain in 1709.  Around this time true bestsellers emerged, as people were able to afford books and publishers could afford to have large print runs (oh, how the times have changed).

The Romantic and Victorian Periods brought about an enormous increase in material, such as Byron’s popular poems and Dickens’ serialized novels. Improvements in transportation (think railways and steamships) made distribution and global publication a far easier task. Circulating libraries guaranteed readership and reasonable returns. Publishers were pleased with the popularity of the three-volume novel and created books published with flimsy paper covers meant to be rebound by dutiful readers. Making people buy more books and saving money at the same time – we were clever even then.

Across the pond, the Americans were the Blackbeards of publishing, constantly pirating content from European counterparts. Stephen Daye had begun the first American press in 1638, but it wasn’t until 1790 that America began to pass any copyright laws (more than 80 years after Great Britain). In the early 1800s, publishers such as Wiley, Collins, Harper, Hachette, and MacMillan were in their infancy as printers or small presses. And after partnering with Wiley in 1838, Putnam introduced what would become the modern royalty system (a 10% rate to authors).

The 1900s saw a shift away from London and Paris as the epicenters of publishing and thrust New York City into the limelight. In a chaotic century for publishing, these years ushered in the heydays of mass-market paperbacks, company mergers, bookstore chains, and the beginnings of digitization. The Great Depression hit small publishers and booksellers hard, eventually leading to a few companies coming out on top. Penguin made its mark by leading the trade paperback pack, and (ironically) warned publishers that paperbacks would destroy the industry by making hardcover copies obsolete. We certainly know that isn’t the case, and today eBooks are the cause for a wee bit more concern for traditional print publishers.

Powerful corporate houses, often owned by media conglomerates in the U.S. and abroad began the mergers of the mid-1900s. Combined with the rise of giant chain booksellers, these two factors changed the face of the industry forever. Just as independent booksellers had to compete with Borders and Barnes & Noble, indie publishers had to find niches, audiences, or books that would keep them afloat.

Then came the ‘90s and ‘00s, two of the most turbulent decades publishing has ever seen. In a very quick succession of years, the Internet, Google, POD, Amazon, eBooks, self-publishing, and the recession tossed our little world upside down. Online self-publishing has grown in numbers and in reputation and most houses have no choice now but to go digital. It is a very different game than it was 50, 100, or 200 years ago. I bet Gutenberg is rolling over in his grave, mighty displeased that his beloved press is sitting on the back burner.

Some say publishing is a dying industry, but looking back on the last six hundred years, I’d say we’re a far cry from that state. The industry continues to adapt to the changing landscape of book sales, with a mix of traditional retail, online platforms, and direct-to-consumer approaches.

We are (to borrow from David Godine) "the gatekeepers of culture;" publishing has preserved and celebrated language since the first printing press. We’ve aided in the spread of education and literacy, found and published wonderful authors and works, and created links between authors, booksellers, and readers. Plus, we’re a lot of fun. We aren’t going anywhere.



1403: Creation of Stationer’s Company, London

1450: Gutenberg invents the printing press

1474: William Caxton begins publishing in England and prints more than 700 titles in lifetime

1500: Venice has more than 150 presses

1638: Stephen Daye and Mrs. Glover begin first American press

1640: The Bay Psalm Book is one of the first books printed in America

1709: Jacob Tonson (London) begins publishing Shakespeare

1709: Statute of Anne is passed: first copyright law of Great Britain

1724: Creation of Longman publishing company, London

1728: Benjamin Franklin opens his printing shop

1740: John Newberry begins publishing

1759: Voltaire’s Candide sells 20,000 copies in one month

1790: First federal copyright act passed in the U.S.

1807: Charles Wiley opens a print shop in NYC

1817: Creation of Harper & Brothers

1819: Creation of Collins Printing Company

1826: French publishing house Hachette Livre founded by Louis Hachette

1835: Bertelsmann AG media corporation founded in Germany

1838: Creation of Wiley & Putnam

1838: First International Copyright Act (Britain)

1842: Creation of Charles Mudie’s Circulating Library; purchases more than 1 million volumes

1843: Creation of Macmillan Publishers Ltd

1846: Putman introduces modern royalty system

1873: Charles Barnes (Barnes & Noble) begins a book-printing business in Illinois

1875: First literary agents arrive on the scene

1888: James H. McGraw founds “The Hill Publishing Company” (later to become McGraw Hill)

1891: International Copyright Act of 1891 extends limited protection to foreign copyright holders

1896: Creation of the Publisher’s Association in U.K.

1897: Creation of Doubleday & McClure Company

1917: Barnes & Noble opens in NYC

1924: Creation of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

1931: Albatross Books begins the mass-market paperback

1933: Creation of Waldenbooks

1935: Creation of Penguin Books Ltd.

1935: Penguin Books commandeers the paperback business

1948: Creation of Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group

1952: Universal Copyright Convention adopted at Geneva

1966: International Organization for Standardization creates ISBN system

1968: Time Inc. acquires Little, Brown, and Co, the first house to become a part of the Hachette Book Group

1971: Borders bookstore founded in Ann Arbor, MI

1979: Rupert Murdoch establishes News Corporation

1989: Collins acquired by News Corp

1990s: The start of eBooks, mostly as PDFs

1995: Amazon.com goes online

1998: Bertelsmann purchases Random House

2000: U.S. home to more than 2,600 publishing houses

2004: Google Print Library Project goes online

2007: Amazon Kindle is introduced

2009: Penguin overtakes Random House as largest trade book publisher in the world

2010: Amazon Kindle eBook sales surpass paperback sales

2011: Borders closes

2012: 1.2 Million book titles published (up from 290,000 in 2009)

2013: Penguin and Random House merge to make the Big 5 the Big 4

2014: Amazon launches Kindle Unlimited subscription service offering access to a vast library of e-books and audiobooks

2015: E-book sales plateau and there is a resurgence in interest in print books

2018: Audiobook market experiences significant growth with podcasts and celebrity narrators contributing to its popularity

2019: American Booksellers Association reports a resurgence in independent bookstore openings

2020: The COVID-19 pandemic disrupts publishing and bookselling; virtual book events and online book clubs become more prevalent

2021: BookTok becomes major influencer of bestseller lists and boosts book sales

2022: The publishing industry faces increased scrutiny for diversity and inclusion, leading to initiatives for more representation

2023: Book Banning reached a new level in both the numbers of books banned but also the level of outcry in support of banned books and the teachers and librarians who defend them

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Image by Vecteezy.com
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Jillian Manning is a writer and contributing editor for Independent PublisherShe loves reading and writing but not arithmetic. Follow her on Twitter at @LillianJaine or on her blog at www.editorsays.com.