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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIV. Book Production and Distribution, 1625–1800

§ 34. Printed Catalogues; James Lackington

It is possible that the success of the “auctionary” method of disposing of superfluous stock may have suggested the catalogue of books at marked prices as a means of facilitating communication between bookseller and buyer and of placing additional temptation in the way of the latter. At all events, by the middle of the eighteenth century the practice of issuing such catalogues was widely in use, and many booksellers sent out their priced catalogues annually or even twice a year. Conspicuous among these was Thomas Osborne, insolent and ignorant, but with enough business wit to amass a considerable fortune, the Ballards, noted for their divinity catalogues, the Paynes and James Lackington. Lackington, whose Memoirs contain a lively account of his remarkable business career, with a strange variety of other matters, including the state of the book market of his day, began life as a shoemaker, but soon abandoned that calling for the more congenial occupation of trafficking in books. From his initial experiment in bookselling, the purchase of a sackful of old theology for a guinea, he progressed steadily, in spite of lack of education. His first catalogue, issued in 1779, caused mirth and derision by its many blunders, but he got rid of twenty pounds’ worth of books within a week. He sold for ready money only, and made a practice of selling everything cheap with the object of retaining the customers he had and of attracting others. The success of these principles, which he was not above proclaiming in his carriage motto, “Small gains do great things,” brought him an enormous increase of business. His shop, known as “The Temple of the Muses,” occupied a large corner block in Finsbury square, and has been described as one of the sights of London. In the centre stood a huge circular counter, and a broad staircase led to the “lounging rooms” and to a series of galleries where the volumes arranged on the shelves grew shabbier and cheaper as one ascended. Every one of these thousands of books was marked with its lowest price and numbered according to a printed catalogue. In 1792, Lackington estimated his profits for the year to be about £5000; at that period, he was issuing every year two catalogues, of which he printed more than three thousand copies, and he calculated that he was selling upwards of 100,000 volumes annually.

In his Memoirs, written about 1791, Lackington observes that

  • the sale of books in general has increased prodigiously within the last twenty years. According to the best estimation I have been able to make. I suppose that more than four times the number of books are sold now than were sold twenty years since.
  • He also remarked that the recent general introduction of histories, romances, stories and poems into schools had been a great means of diffusing a taste for reading among all ranks of people. The extensive increase in the habit of reading naturally brought with it the need of an ampler supply of literature, and, though books had become cheaper and more plentiful, it is hardly to be supposed that the demands of the large body of general readers could be satisfied by the limited number of books they were able to buy or borrow, and the medium of circulating libraries was an obvious method of augmenting supplies.