Every year, I teach Early Twentieth-Century Fiction. In the first lecture, I tell my students that the baseline fact about fiction in this period is expansion: more books, more readers, more writers. It is this expansion which makes possible the diversification and hierarchization that characterize the literary field in the twentieth century. And every year, I want to illustrate these claims quantitatively. It seems straightforward enough: surely, somewhere in my small pile of book-history books, there would be a table of figures of fiction production over time that will let me substantiate this straightforward point. But the best I have managed so far has been disappointingly vague and broad-brush, cobbled together from a table here and an offhand summary there in work by book historians.
For my research on popular fiction genres, I have been working through Publishers’ Weekly in the decades on either side of 1900. It has the additional convenience of being digitally available, since scans of the yearly volumes are in HathiTrust (and, mirabile dictu, actually organized under a single catalogue entry). PW is one of the sources for the figures I have seen, since it kept a running bibliography of new books, and every January printed an annual summary of the past year’s production. Since I was reading those annual summaries anyway, I decided to transcribe PW’s tallies of yearly fiction production. Perhaps it would be possible to automate the transcription, but trying to get, say, Tabula going here was more work than just writing down the numbers in a CSV file myself.
It occurred to me that this transcription might be useful to others, and that it wouldn’t hurt to make it possible to build on it. So I have put it on github. I didn’t have the time to transcribe the full tables, so there’s work to be done to get PW’s other categories transcribed. And other fundamental time series for the literary field would be equally useful: statistics from other countries, of course (I am also going through the Publishers’ Circular myself); but also anything about readership or the book market.
A historical sociology of literature needs systematic baseline estimates of the size of book production and circulation. Though book historians have made these estimates before in their own work, a machine-readable reference for these numbers does not exist (as far as I know).1 The easiest way to produce such a reference is piecemeal, little by little, sharing the work. It is also important to be able to make corrections and additions over time.
The github repository, bookstats, has my initial transcription into CSV format of the numbers in Publishers’ Weekly for U.S. title production, 1889–1921. The file can be viewed here, conveniently made readable by GitHub’s built-in CSV display. The README contains my notes on the transcription and a few remarks for anyone who wants to add to what I’ve done so far.
Either this can be a starting point for gathering more information, or it will provoke someone less ignorant than I am to tell me where this work has already been done, and done better. I’d be happy with either outcome.
A story so far: What is title production, anyway?
What I have so far gives me more things to worry over. Publishers’ Weekly’s annual summaries are fascinating documents, not least because they attest both to the difficulties of getting good numbers and to the ways ideologies and interests are expressed in classificatory choices. The category of “new editions” is a source of considerable difficulty. PW tries to ignore “cheap” reprints, but does not make explicit what constitutes the difference between a respectable new edition of a title and a mere reproduction. I suspect price and the status of the issuing publisher are more important than any bibliographical distinction. Then the question of the publishing industry’s international standing is played out in the shifting rubrics for dividing works “by origin”: in 1894 PW begins to count both “Books by English and other foreign authors, incl. new eds., manuf. in U. S.” and “Books by English authors imported in sheets” in the previous year, and notes disapprovingly:
The story the figures tell is that 2803 books by American writers and 1180 reprints from English and other foreign writers were made here, and 1151 English works imported in quantities to supply the demand….For several years we have been pointing out that our native talent was less and less represented represented on our publishers’ lists. (“The Books of 1893,” PW 1148, January 27, 1894: 165.)
The phrase “English and other foreign authors” tells the story of PW’s sense of the U.S.’s culturally dominated status with respect to England, and its indignation on behalf of “our native talent.”
As for my hope of deriving an instant vignette of the book industry’s expansion from these numbers, it was frustrated. The yearly production of new fiction titles according to these numbers looks like this, naively adding together “new titles” and “new editions”:
You can look at the numbers yourself, of course, and slice them other ways.
By 1895, says Beth Luey, “books were at last becoming a mass medium” in the United States.2 I am quite sure this is so! But it is not attested by a notable ramping-up in title production as represented by the “Fiction” category in this period, and so my search for compelling summary evidence to lay before my students continues. In fact, the spike in the years immediately after 1900 is “corrected” by PW by eliminating more cheap books.3 A longer timespan would look rather different, I’m sure. (And I have to go back and look at the “Juvenile” category, whose overlaps with fiction are a running concern.) Within this span, the absence of dramatic increase in the numbers has something to do with the programmatic elimination of the cheapest forms of fiction.
Is title production the place to look for signs of expansion? Obviously one would want print runs and sales too. I’m dying for a source for such numbers! Expansion (more books, more readers) can be happening even if title production is relatively steady. In fact, counting titles may even be a strategy for resisting the consequences of expansion on the cheap end of the market. The PW annual summaries often register ambivalence about the scale of production, especially of fiction. In 1902 the magazine complains that the “market was crowded” with reprints of novels and “cheap paper copies of a poorer class of fiction, that included a great deal of utterly worthless material,” acknowledging even “the phenomenal sales of certain American novels” with a certain reserve.4 In this point of view, too much expansion is a problem: a commercial problem, no doubt, for a limited book-distribution system, but also a symbolic problem of producing worthy goods whose status depends on their relative scarcity. Titles are scarcer than either copies or readers; new titles, with reprints weeded out, are scarcer still. Obviously the trade is still a capitalist industry, but counting titles bespeaks an attempt to find a compromise between economic interests and symbolic ones. Perhaps it is this attempted compromise that is objectified in the numbers I have copied out from Publishers’ Weekly. There is more to be done.
[Adding this, 3/28/16.] Allen Riddell reminds me of the transcription of tallies for UK title production from the Publishers’ Circular in the appendices to Simon Eliot’s Some Patterns and Trends in British Publishing, 1800–1919 (London: Bibliographical Society, 1994). Whether that work can be (re)-digitized is something I’ll look into. In the meanwhile, I have just quickly typed in Eliot’s figures for the UK’s fiction title-production over the same interval, and these do show expansion up until the start of the war:
And the trend would appear even more clearly if I started the interval at 1880. Eliot comments explicitly on the thirty years from that date as a period of notable expansion in both title production and print-run sizes. Yet a new question: was the culturally dominant UK also “ahead” of the US on the expansion trend? First, a closer look at the categories on both sides of the Atlantic is in order…
[Edit 7/11/2016: cosmetic changes to the plots.]
- In a short 2002 essay for Book History on quantification, Simon Eliot writes, “Currently I am running a major project that is turning the fortnightly lists of new publications printed in the Publishers’ Circular between the 1840s and 1920s into machine-readable form.” What has become of this project? Is there a U.S. equivalent I have missed, or equivalents for other countries? ↩
- “Modernity and Print III: The United States 1890–1970,” in Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose, A Companion to the History of the Book (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 370. ↩
- From the survey of 1905: “The new editions of standard works are included in this total, but few of the cheap paper series, mostly re-issues of old books. The omission of cheap series makes the count seem less than in 1904, but actually there were more books published than in any previous years” (“American Book Production in 1905,” PW 1774, Janaury 27, 1906: 125). The total that has increased, however, is that of “new books” (i.e. new titles) whereas the new counting policy drastically cuts the figures under “new editions” compared to the previous four years. ↩
- “The Books of 1901,” PW, January 25, 1902: 83. ↩