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History of Publishing Ep 6: The Book Trade Blossoms

Between the 16th and 18th century, publishing technology experienced very little change. However, the publishing industry became a key figure in social change and political discourse.


In the golden age of Elizabeth I, the Stationers' Company became a powerful force in the publishing industry. Established in 1403. it initially acted as a guild (union) for booksellers to protect the English tradesmen's position in the book market, particularly when continental printers started establishing themselves in London.

In 1559, Elizabeth assigned the Stationers' Company a royal charter and put in place a system of crown licenses. Controls were introduced, limiting the publishing industry to London, other than the two university presses in Oxford and Cambridge. The Stationers' Company was given powers to raid printing houses and to destroy offending materials. The company took advantage of this authority to secures its own monopoly of the market as well as defending the monarchy. The religious tumult of the period was fought in secret prints as the legitimate trade was wiped clean of any religious propaganda that threatened Elizabeth's reign.


The power of the Stationers' Company also consolidated the authority of the bookseller in the publishing process, indicating that tradesman were entitled to privileged positions above the craftsman. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the method for assigning or obtaining permission to print certain works changed from short-term 'licenses' to life-long patents. This granted people such as John Day, who was given monopoly over the printing of alphabet books, the ability to control and dominate the book market. The best patents were brought by the richest members of the Stationers' Company which caused significant discontent within the industry. However, in 1603, King James I intervened and forcibly re-assigned some patents, withdrawing them from individual control and making them more widely available for print by selling them to the company as an institution, rather than a body of individual profiteers.


The Stationers' Company subsequently became a publishing organisation. In 1640, by leasing patents under its ownership, the company controlled most of the printing network in London. This monopoly created a stagnant market and the English book trade continued to fall behind European standards. In 1637, the Star Chamber introduced detailed licensing procedures which, after its abolishment, Parliament upheld. The freedom of the press continued to be a contentious issue until the 18th century. The Copyright Act of 1709 was introduced to protect the financial interests of authors and publishers while also making content available to the reading public, which was gradually growing in size.


Middle class literacy grew considerably in the 16th and 17th century, particularly amongst women. The publishing industry responded to this wider readership and the 18th century became a period a significant development prose, periodicals and poetry. Censorship gradually declined and abolishment gradually began amongst Western countries. In 1766, Parliament put an end to general warrants that allowed unspecified inspections, seizures and arrests for the apparent production of suppressed moved away from political matter and centred on pieces of libel and obscenity (which depending on the definition of 'obscene' was still a form of social and political censorship).


Next Episode: Episode 7: Modern Publishing

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