Cover image for How Books Came to America: The Rise of the American Book Trade By John Hruschka

How Books Came to America

The Rise of the American Book Trade

John Hruschka


$88.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05081-2

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ISBN: 978-0-271-05082-9

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248 pages
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1 b&w illustration

Penn State Series in the History of the Book

How Books Came to America

The Rise of the American Book Trade

John Hruschka

“This well-researched title will attract literary historians, particularly fans of early American history because of the connections Hruschka makes between British literature and the mindset of the New World settlers. . . . The book will also appeal to readers whose careers touch the book industry intimately; it will engage publishers and printers with its discussion of early copyright and book manufacturing technologies. Librarians will also be attracted by the story surrounding some of their own core trade publications, including Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Anyone who pays attention to the popular press knows that the new media will soon make books obsolete. But predicting the imminent demise of the book is nothing new. At the beginning of the twentieth century, for example, some critics predicted that the electro-mechanical phonograph would soon make books obsolete. Still, despite the challenges of a century and a half of new media, books remain popular, with Americans purchasing more than eight million books each day. In How Books Came to America, John Hruschka traces the development of the American book trade from the moment of European contact with the Americas, through the growth of regional book trades in the early English colonial cities, to the more or less unified national book trade that emerged after the American Civil War and flourished in the twentieth century. He examines the variety of technological, historical, cultural, political, and personal forces that shaped the American book trade, paying particular attention to the contributions of the German bookseller Frederick Leypoldt and his journal, Publishers Weekly.

Unlike many studies of the book business, How Books Came to America is more concerned with business than it is with books. Its focus is on how books are manufactured and sold, rather than how they are written and read. It is, nevertheless, the story of the people who created and influenced the book business in the colonies and the United States. Famous names in the American book trade—Benjamin Franklin, Robert Hoe, the Harpers, Henry Holt, and Melvil Dewey—are joined by more obscure names like Joseph Glover, Conrad Beissel, and the aforementioned Frederick Leypoldt. Together, they made the American book trade the unique commercial institution it is today.

“This well-researched title will attract literary historians, particularly fans of early American history because of the connections Hruschka makes between British literature and the mindset of the New World settlers. . . . The book will also appeal to readers whose careers touch the book industry intimately; it will engage publishers and printers with its discussion of early copyright and book manufacturing technologies. Librarians will also be attracted by the story surrounding some of their own core trade publications, including Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.”

John Hruschka is Assistant Professor of English at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.




List of Abbreviations

1 Creating New Worlds

2 Inventing America in the English Book Trade

3 Creating Book Trades in English America

4 Creating German Books in the New World

5 Re-creating the London Book Trade in the United States

6 Revolutions in American Book Production Technology

7 Transplanting the German Book Trade to the United States

8 The Evolution of the American Book Business

9 Becoming a German Bookseller in the United States

10 Creating a German Bookstore in Philadelphia

11 The Evolution of an American Publisher

12 Creating an Independent American Publisher

13 Imposing Order on the American Book Trade

14 Creating the Office of Publishers’ Weekly

15 Celebrating the Book Trade in the New World

16 The End of the Beginning

17 Inventing the Future American Book Trade




The future of the American book business is uncertain. Anyone who pays attention to the popular press knows that the new media will soon make books obsolete. Predicting the imminent demise of the book is nothing new: pundits have been predicting it for more than a century. In 1894, Scribner’s Magazine published an article by the French critic Octave Uzanne in which he wrote of the destiny of printed books:

If by books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable collections of paper, printed, sewed, and bound in a cover announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg’s invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude [disuse] as a means of current interpretation of our mental products. Printing, which Rivarol so judiciously called the artillery of thought, and of which Luther said that it is the last and best gift by which God advances the things of the Gospel—printing, which has changed the destiny of Europe, and which, especially during the last two centuries, has governed opinion through the book, the pamphlet, and the newspaper—printing, which since 1436 has reigned despotically over the mind of man, is, in my opinion, threatened with death by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented.1

According to Uzanne, the new electromechanical phonograph was about to make books obsolete.

Today the new media that threaten the book business are tweets, or e-books, or the Internet, but computers (pre-Internet), television, motion pictures, radio, the telephone, and, of course, the phonograph have each in turn figured as the technology that would put an end to books. Despite the challenges of a century and a half of new media, books remain popular. Americans purchase more than eight million books every day. American publishers issue approximately 275,000 new books each year.2 After five and a half centuries, the printed book remains great technology—cheap, efficient, reliable, portable, and remarkably durable.

As it turns out, the history of the American book industry is as difficult to pin down as its future. The making and selling of printed books has always been a complicated business with a deceptively simple name: the book trade. The book trade is actually a collection of interrelated businesses that both cooperate and compete with one another to put books into the hands of readers. To make matters even more complicated, there are many book trades, and they can be divided and classified in several different ways. The book trades are frequently categorized by the sort of work they do. In the modern book trade, there are three major divisions—publishing, printing, and bookselling, but those divisions have never been permanent or clearly differentiated.

Book trades are also categorized according to location and language. Nations have book trades, as do languages. Sometimes national and linguistic divisions overlap; the French book trade tends to produce books in French, but it also produces books in German. Sometimes the divisions seem arbitrary or even misleading. When, for example, an American firm, owned by a German media company, publishes an edition of Pablo Neruda’s poems in Spanish, the book could be regarded as the product of the American, North American, South American, Chilean, Spanish, or even German book trade.3

In order to unravel the history of the American book trades, we need to define “book” and “American” both individually and as we use them in combination. First, we need to distinguish between two different ideas that are conflated in the single word “book.” Books are the product of an author’s imagination and labor, but they are also physical objects that are manufactured and sold. The book trade is the diverse commercial enterprise that manufactures and sells books. Literary historians generally study the book trade to discover new ways of understanding authors and the literary process. Although it might seem odd, the book trade tends to be more concerned with books as physical objects or commercial goods, because the book trade is, and always has been, a business.

While books have existed and have been bought and sold since antiquity, the book trade is a print phenomenon. Specific technical and economic pressures inherent in printing from movable type created the book trade. Printing makes it possible to manufacture large numbers of identical books. In fact, the financial structure of print production makes it not only possible, but also necessary, to manufacture books in large numbers. Printers must produce enough copies of a book to justify the cost of production. Producing all those copies then creates problems of distribution. Long before the steam engine powered the Industrial Revolution, the book trade had to invent new business models to solve the problems inherent in mass production.

In order to discuss the American book trades, we also have to decide what we mean by “American.” Most discussions of the “American book trade” are primarily concerned with the books produced and sold in Britain’s North American colonies and the United States. That idea of the American book trade begins, more or less, with the introduction of printing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1639. It is primarily an English-language enterprise that developed from the British book trade. If we define “American” a little more broadly, then the book trade suddenly has a much longer history. In that broader view, for example, the first printing press was established a full century earlier, in Mexico City in 1539.

Once we expand our conception of the American book trade to include all the Americas, or even all of North America, new patterns emerge and the relationship between the European and the American book trades becomes richer. The broader scope means that we have to go back further to locate the beginnings of the American book trade—not as far back as the Fall of Constantinople, but back to the beginnings of print culture.

If we push the beginning of the story back to 1450, it becomes clear that the creation of printing and the development of the book trade made America—and thus the American book trade—possible. Of course, the landmass and the people of the Americas existed before Europeans crossed the ocean, but “America,” whether we think of it as a place or an idea, began as a phenomenon of European print culture. Printing created a radical new book trade, the book trade created America, and then Americans created a new book trade.

The following chapters explain how the modern American book trade developed and why it evolved into a business enterprise that is structurally distinct from the European book trades that are its parents.

My study of the American book trade began while I was looking through the first two years of Publishers’ Weekly using a balky microfilm reader. I sensed then that Publishers’ Weekly was a solution, but I knew very little about the problem it was supposed to solve. I tried to learn everything I could about the man behind Publishers’ Weekly, Frederick Leypoldt. There was very little. Between 1855 and 1884, he created Publishers’ Weekly, the American Catalogue of Books, and the Publishers’ Trade List Annual (the American Catalogue and PTLA were combined in the twentieth century and continue as a single reference called Books in Print), as well as the Library Journal, all of which remain the standard publications in their respective fields. Leypoldt deserves much of the credit for the creation of the American Library Association and for launching the careers of Henry Holt, R. R. Bowker, and Melvil Dewey. He was also a dismal failure as a businessman. Beyond the astonishing facts of his professional life, I found next to nothing: Leypoldt left behind nothing more personal than a handful of business letters and a few receipts.

Knowing that I had found a solution, I started to look for the problem. I quickly discovered that while almost everyone agreed that Leypoldt and Publishers’ Weekly brought some order to the chaotic American book trade, no one seemed to explain why it was so beset by problems. Contemporary accounts of the book trade in the United States were full of complaints and accusations, which historians of print repeated but did not explain.

When I began, the standard reference works of U.S. print history were Isaiah Thomas’s venerable History of Printing in America, Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt’s The Book in America, and John Tebbel’s A History of Book Publishing in the United States. Those books, and Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography, were helpful, but they did not explain why the book trade in the United States was so peculiar and so fractious.

At some point in my early research, I reread a passage in the preface of a remarkable little book by William Charvat, a book historian well before it became a recognized discipline. In the preface to the lectures presented in Literary Publishing in America, 1790–1850, Charvat explained an important point that I had not taken into account:

These chapters are, in one sense a skimming, in other ways, a condensation, of materials which I collected years ago toward a history of the economics of authorship in America. I had hoped to add a new dimension to literary history, but the dimension turned out to be too narrow. Literary history, no matter what the historian’s approach, must be primarily concerned with literature. If the approach is wholly extrinsic as mine was at the beginning, the product is likely to be sterile. Facts and figures about sales of books and incomes of authors are interesting—but not interesting enough, unless they specifically reveal something about the ways in which writers and their writings function in a culture. Similarly, the history of publishing, with which I became deeply involved, tended, like most specialties, to become an end in itself. Publishing is relevant to literary history only in so far as it can be shown to be, ultimately, a shaping influence on literature.4

Charvat’s economics approach was a radical departure from the textual focus of literary studies in the late 1950s, when he delivered his lectures, but his primary interest remained the literature and the authors who created it. The idea that the business of making and selling books—as distinct from the business of composing novels or poems, or the business of bringing great literature before a reading public—might be interesting enough to warrant close study was more than Charvat could allow, but it was exactly what I was doing.

My work was part of what is still a new discipline, usually called “book history” or “history of the book.” In his 1982 essay “What Is the History of Books?,” Roger Darnton explained that book history combined traditional bibliographic study with the socioeconomic analyses of French scholars like Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin. As Darnton described the enterprise, book historians might borrow elements from print history, bibliography, library science, Marxist materialism, cultural history, and literary history. The new approach, according to Darnton, encompassed “the social and cultural history of communication by print,” and it was interdisciplinary in nature and international in scope.5

Book history examines book production and distribution, but, as Darnton made clear, it is most concerned with “communication by print.” Thirty years separated Charvat’s lectures and Darnton’s article, but both men seemed to agree that literature was more interesting than the business of publishing. Since Darnton’s essay first appeared, the book trades in the United States have been the subject of hundreds of studies. Recently, the five-volume series A History of the Book in America has taken its place as the new standard reference in the field of American book history. Book historians have examined our manifold relationship with books in remarkable and revealing ways, but no one seemed to explain why the book trade in America needed Frederick Leypoldt or Publishers’ Weekly.

While I was investigating the American book trade, my friend and colleague Richard Cunningham introduced me to Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930 by Thomas Parke Hughes. Hughes used systems theory to explain the development of the electric power grid in Great Britain. Systems theory emerged after the Second World War, primarily in the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, a theoretical biologist who developed his theory because he noticed in biology the same problem that Henry Adams noted in history: chains of causation tend to break down as we continue to study a phenomenon.6 Studied in isolation, any phenomenon appears to have and beget a particular chain of causation, but, when examined in context, it becomes increasingly difficult to map cause and effect.

Hughes distilled the principles of systems theory into one cogent paragraph that illuminated the problems I was finding in the American book trade:

Some characteristics of systems are so general that they transcend time and place. A system is constituted of related parts or components. These components are connected by a network or structure, which for the student of systems may be more interesting than the components. The interconnected components of technical systems are often centrally controlled, and usually the limits of the system are established by the extent of this control. Controls are exercised to optimize the system’s performance and to direct the system toward the achievement of goals. The goal of an electric production system, for example, is to transform available energy supply, or input, into desired output. Because the components are related by the network of interconnections, the state, or activity, of one component influences the state, or activity, of other components in the system. The network provides a distinctive configuration for the system. For example, a system can have its components arranged vertically or horizontally.7

I realized that the American book trade was a system, but it lacked any sort of controlling mechanism. It certainly had no central control that could be “engaged to optimize system performance.” I wondered if the book trade actually had any goals.

I then began to look for the roots of the American book trade. My approach was a practical application of ideas developed by Hayden White and Michel Foucault. Assuming that vestiges of earlier book trade structures were influencing the American book trade as it developed, I began to follow the American book trade back to its European roots. Then I started to follow the threads forward to America.

It was a surprise to discover that the American book trade was not simply an extension of the English trade. The modern book trade in America developed from several points of origin that were geographically, chronologically, and linguistically distinct. The American book trade was not a single coherent enterprise until late in the nineteenth century. Until then, it was a loose network of competing and sometimes incompatible trades.

Sometime during the process, I realized that printing was perhaps the earliest example of mass production (I later discovered that Lewis Mumford had arrived at the same conclusion in 1934).8 That complicated the problem. It turned out that I was studying a business that was dealing with all the problems of mass production within the context of the traditional craft economy that developed in the Middle Ages. Book production was fundamentally different from the production of any other consumer goods.

Then I happened on Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., and his remarkable book, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business.9 Chandler and Hughes, it seemed, were working the same intellectual vein. Chandler was showing how the railroads built the commercial structures that were needed to fulfill what Hughes called “systems requirements” in Networks of Power. Furthermore, the railroads that Chandler was describing, like the book trade I was investigating, operated within the rough-and-tumble business world of the loosely connected United States. Perhaps Publishers’ Weekly fulfilled a systems requirement of the book trade.

When I started the project, I had intended to write a professional biography of Frederick Leypoldt. Instead, I found that I was trying to explain the context of his work; I had to explain why the American book trade needed someone like Leypoldt. Leypoldt became a turning point in a story with many turning points. He had created a mechanism that made it possible for the book trade in the United States to succeed without a formal regulatory agency. Publishers, printers, and booksellers in the United States still rely on a handful of private companies, most of which were started by Frederick Leypoldt, for all of their trade communication and education. The United States never had a formal trade organization like the German Börsenverein or the Stationers’ Company in England—it had Frederick Leypoldt, Publishers’ Weekly, and then the R. R. Bowker Company.

That is what I discovered by following the various threads I found in reference books, scholarly studies, popular accounts of the day (whether the day was 31 April 1884 in New York or 15 March 1493 in Seville), literature both minor and great, quirky websites, and archival material. I went backward in time to find out why an obscure German immigrant named Frederick Leypoldt felt the need to sacrifice his life in order to force a trade journal called Publishers’ Weekly on an unwilling American book trade. I discovered some of the events and forces that created the American book trade, and I discovered the problem that Leypoldt was trying to solve.

The story is no longer a biography. It traces a variety of internal and external forces that shaped the book industry as it began in Europe, migrated from Europe to the New World, and evolved into the modern American book trade. I pay particular attention to the historical, social, commercial, and technological forces that created the European book trades and transformed those book trades once they were established in America. Along the way, I have the opportunity to tell the stories of the interesting events and people I discovered. Although the American book trade retains traces of a remarkable array of influences, it is not simply an extension of its European parents. In America, the book trade became a unique, wholly commercial institution.