Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 17. Cheap Series of Books

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXIX. Book Publishers and Publishing

§ 17. Cheap Series of Books

But as we go backwards to our classic novelists, it becomes strikingly apparent that, save in one or two instances, they got no such rewards. The reason lies in the unending flow of European fiction reproduced in the mammoth weekly for five cents, and by the best publishers, usually, in Cooper’s time for $1.50, while American novels were $2. Then, to catch all classes of buyers, between these two came the cheap series so popular even a generation ago. Harper’s Library of Select Novels in brown paper covers began in 1842, reaching 615 volumes, all of them save some half dozen being foreign authors, in part contemporary ones. This is but a type of what publishers were doing, or trying to do, all over the country. After the Civil War, when trade courtesy died, this deluge of cheap literature began again, the Seaside Library being especially noteworthy, though scarcely less so than the Lakeside Series from Chicago, both selling as low as ten cents. Both were births of the end of the seventies. Meanwhile, if the European author was being robbed directly and the American author indirectly in this country, the latter was receiving little from Europe. As early as 1793 Germany was pirating our authors; and Cooper was but a type when he remarked after his residence in France that the return to him from the sales of his books in France did not pay his French taxes; and he was highly popular there at that time, too. The British pirate was not handicapped by the necessity of translation.

A few words must yet be said upon the concentration of American publishing. In 1858 Simms wrote: “We have not a single publisher in the whole South, from the Chesapeake to the Rio Grande. We have book sellers and printers, who occasionally issue books originally from the press but who … rarely succeed in selling them.” Concentration of population and facility of communication, both largely lacking, were, he thought, the two secrets of success. The Southern city which came nearest being a publishing centre at this period was Richmond, while Mobile had one firm of some local prominence; but the favourite publishers of Southern writers for a generation before the war were the Harpers, the Appletons, Jewett & Company, Derby & Jackson, and the Lippincotts. But if the South was not active in publication, the evidence is overwhelming that it was an unusually large buyer of fine books.

In the Middle West, to an eminent degree Cincinnati had facility of communication through her strategic position on the Ohio in days of slow overland communication; and for two decades or more before the war it was a great publishing factor along the Ohio, the Mississippi, and westward through Texas. Later came the period of rapid and cheap overland shipments and of great publishing houses with a far-flung corps of salesmen and all-pervading methods of advertising; and Cincinnati relatively lost its bright promise, being therein but a type of what, broadly speaking, took place outside of three or four great cities.