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History of Publishing Ep 7: Modern Publishing

The 19th century saw the beginning of a new era in publishing. After remaining so stagnant for nearly 200 years, technical advancements like stereotyping, the iron press, and mechanical type-setting increased book output and lowered costs of production. The industry boomed.


Improvements in communication and transportation meant that publishers were able to distribute book to a wider network of booksellers and private collectors. The advancement in printing technology had to be able to keep up with the rising demand for literature, as with the development of the railway had led to an increase in leisure reading.


By the 1850s, the new mass production techniques had reduced the cost of a book significantly, making them widely accessible to the merchant and working classes. While 19th century publishing was competitive and individualistic, its growing volume and index required regulation. Bookseller would drop the prices of books catastrophically in efforts to outbid their competitors, threatening the future of authors and publishers. The net price principle was first conceived and implemented in Germany in 1887. Booksellers would be able to purchase books from the publisher at a trade discount on the condition that the book is sold to the public at a price that does not undermine the net cost, set by the publisher.


Attempts to introduce a fixed, minimum price failed throughout the century until the establishment of the Associated Booksellers of Great Britain (1895) and the Publishers Association (1896). The two organisations devised The Net Book Agreement in 1901 to set out a standard net price system. Simultaneously, the Society of Authors (1884) was founded to secure fair contracts and royalties for authors. Alongside the development of financial rights for authors, copyright became an international standard in 1885, set out by the Berne convention. The new custom term of protection was fixed as lifetime and another fifty years posthumously.


As a new millennium dawned, state education in more advanced countries increased the need for educational books. Smaller, specialised publishing houses could be founded fairly easily, with wages remaining low and printing costs quickly recouped through book sales. Publishers specialising in educational resources grew quickly to meet the demand for school and university materials. Literary agents became a big part of the publisher's hunt for new manuscripts and authors; the agents acted as representative for the author's intellectual and financial interests while also leading publishers to new sources that fit their ideal requirements or list.


Next Episode: Episode 8: World War I and The Book Club

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