‘Just Can’t Wait to Get on the Road Again’: Book Distribution in the U.S., Part 2

The first installment on U.S. book distribution examined early methods for book sales and delivery, including traveling peddlers to rural areas and stationary peddlers in metropolises.  With the advent of steam-powered transportation, the book distribution network in the U.S. was about to undergo its first major shift. What follows is an introduction to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the book industry, and paves the way for how trains would firmly and significantly alter the course of book distribution.

In 1880, 72% of the US populace still lived outside major population centers; whereas, this number had been 89% in 1840. In those 40 years, that 20% shift reflects several cultural and technological factors at work, moving citizens into the nation’s cities. The American industrialization period begun in the 1820’s was in full swing by mid-century. Numerous advances affected aspects of the book trade, from production and communication to marketing and distribution.

Appletons' Railway Map of the Southern States, 1874, libs.uga.edu

Appletons’ Railway Map of the Southern States, 1874, libs.uga.edu
Click to enlarge all images.

The most impactful development on book distribution was the invention of the steam engine and the creation of a network of railways. Prior to this era, books moved from major production centers (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati) by water or foot to other centers (New Orleans, Charleston, St. Louis), and then by individuals on foot or horseback, for sales in the backcountry. Now, the railroads allowed for movement of books between major population centers and with a vastly improved degree of speed. In 1800, it took on average, four weeks to transport goods from New York to New Orleans. But by 1857, when railroads linked east and west, that same four-week time span could transport goods from New York to the Oregon territory, and New Orleans could be reached from New York in a matter of days.

US Mail Coach, wikimedia

US Mail Coach, wikimedia

Book distribution, though now mechanized, was a fragmented system from its beginnings. From the country’s founding to the present, distribution is the arm of the industry singled out as most lacking in organization, centralization, and efficiency. Even without technological concerns, streamlining a system of distribution has always proved difficult. One reason is that the book trade utilizes multiple methods of distribution. This is not to say that modes of transportation competed with each other necessarily; however, the postal service and its policies regarding printed material in the mail merit examination. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the postal system, the only distribution arm that could reach everywhere, delivered items to any town and yet, did not look favorably on shipping books until the mid-nineteenth century. Newspapers, whose content was timely, were given favorable rates by the post office while bound books, seen as bulky, heavy, and destructive to other items in the mail, were effectively prohibited from shipping until 1851, contributing to the continued existence of publisher agents and itinerant peddlers in that era.

The birth of a national railway and of relatively more reliable transportation networks in general caused the post office to ease up their restrictive policy towards books. The availability to transport books on trains alleviated concerns about books damaging other mail. Additionally, the industrial age gave rise to a number of privately-owned express delivery companies willing to ship books. Most of these companies are long gone, like William Herriden’s REA_LogoRailway Express Agency, founded in the 1830’s. However, Wells Fargo, started as an express delivery company in 1852, persists today with its familiar stagecoach logo. The advent of express companies caused the post office to change their tune, as they feared the express companies would attract customers who wanted only books shipped, but who would then remain loyal to those express companies for all their mailing needs. In 1851 the post office introduced a lower-class rate for shipping books, which exists today in the media mail rate, a slow but inexpensive way of shipping printed material through the mail.

Publishers meanwhile were attempting to get their products into the hands of retailers in more than one way. Both publishers and middlemen, or jobbers, were simultaneously trying to move product to retailers (predominantly booksellers) and in many cases, were trying to sell the same product to the same customers. This created an environment where the booksellers were at liberty to give their dollars to the wholesaler over the middleman, and still left the wholesalers somewhat at odds with each other. The lag time within the book industry to adopt systems improving its own methods of distribution has been notoriously slow. An issue of Publishers Weekly in 1913 lamented that book distribution had not taken advantage of opportunities offered by industrialization and wrote that “the world is still looking for a publisher who will ‘discover or invent’ a new method which shall be both practical and effective for distribution of books and general literature.”

Book Trade Shows, George Ayres Leavitt, wikimedia

Book Trade Show, George Ayres Leavitt, wikimedia

In the years between the Civil War and the First World War little changed in national book distribution. Those in rural or removed areas still traveled to eastern book centers, and wholesalers continued to make purchases at auctions or trade sales. The first trade sale was held in New York in 1824 and biannually nearly each year thereafter, with similar biannual sales in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, and annual trade shows in Boston. Trade shows allowed publishers and booksellers an opportunity to experience the other major element missing from the book trade in its decentralized state: communication. At these shows, sellers from disparate parts of the country could discuss their wares with each other and were better able to have lines of credit extended. Jobbers used trade shows to purchase large lots of books for the road. Based on what jobbers bought, publishers were able to gain a sense of what titles might sell in quantity before they overcommitted to large print runs.

Further reading:

Casper, Scott E, Ed. A History of the Book in American, Volume 3: The Industrial Book, 1840-1880.

Kielbowicz, Richard B. “Mere Merchandise or Vessels of Culture?: Books in the Mail, 1792-1942.”

Sheehan, Donald. This Was Publishing: A Chronicle of the Book Trade in the Gilded Age.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public.

Why do you think the book industry developed these two distinct arms from whom booksellers can buy wares: publishers and distributors?  Why does this system persist, and will it be able to continue to sustain itself?


2 thoughts on “‘Just Can’t Wait to Get on the Road Again’: Book Distribution in the U.S., Part 2

  1. Wish I could answer your question–and I’m a bookseller!! Do have
    a question for you–Publisher’s Weekly was mentioned in your post–
    do you know if this publication has been continually in circulation
    since then? Loved the illustration of the “book trade show.”

    • Susan, as far as I can tell, PW has been in print continuously since their founding in 1872, though their ownership has changed numerous times. Interestingly, from 1967 to 1985 PW was owned by Xerox.

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