A Brief History of Publishers' Weekly

by Craig Stark

30 May 2011

And Why It Matters to Booksellers

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Publishers' Weekly (now Publishers Weekly) commenced publication in 1872, a whopping 139 years ago, and despite a recent shake up or two, still cranks out 51 issues annually. PW was originally conceived as a "catalogue" for publisher's to announce upcoming publications to booksellers (and otherwise draw attention to them). In the summer of 1874 at a publisher's convention in Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie, PW was established as the official organ of the book trade, and from that point forward it gradually expanded its content to include general book trade news and many related features.

Why should this matter to us? If you've read much about Book Publishing history in the United States and peeked at the author's sources of whatever book you happened to be reading, you've no doubt noticed that time and time again PW is cited as a primary source. Sure, there is no shortage of specific publishing house histories and book-related publications, but it's hit and miss. Some major publisher's have had no histories published; others have but they encompass only a portion of their histories, say, when an especially influential editor was at the helm or are essentially nothing more than informal memoirs woefully bereft of anything useful to us. Many book-related publications have a narrow focus or have more used to collectors than booksellers. But the continuous publication of PW from 1872 forward has provided us with nothing less than a comprehensive, detailed history of publishing itself, including much information on major publishers (and many not so major) in the book trade, specific historical information about the books they published and much, much more.

The usefulness of a searchable database of PW back issues can't be overstated. How many times, for example, have you come across a ca. late 1800s or early 1900s book with scant or no publication data, perhaps not even a date, and been frustrated in your attempts to identify, let alone catalog what you have so as to present it for sale? I have more times than I can count. But in the absence of a relevant bibliography (which either doesn't exist or isn't readily available) here's where PW can prove very useful indeed. A search of the book's title can often bring up mentions in PW, and sometimes you can snag an illustration of the book in a publisher's ad (occasionally showing a dust jacket you don't have - and in fact you may have assumed it wasn't issued with one!), often the specific month and year it was first published or reprinted in some form, its price, and occasionally the number of copies printed or sold or both. Or, failing this, there might be a publisher's address in your book but not a publication date, and by searching for mentions of the publisher in PW, you can narrow down, sometime pinpoint, the date of publication based on the address alone. Given how often publishers, especially in this era, changed owners, names and locations or merged with other publishers or whatever, this isn't as far-fetched as you might think.

The possibilities for establishing the publication details and histories of specific books are many, and the hunt for relevant information, once you learn how to proceed efficiently, can be great adventure. And - you can do a lot of this online, free.

A good place to start is the Internet Archive. This will present a list of all public domain PWs available for viewing online or download via Google. PW was formatted into two volumes annually, January-June and July-December. Currently, most of the issues from Volume III (January-June 1873) through Volume CII (July-December 1922) are available - nearly 50 years worth.

You will notice that there are several formats available. PDF is great, of course, because you can view the actual images of the pages, but this particular species of PDF isn't searchable; the text version is, but unfortunately, the text version includes a lot of garbage and sometimes outright errors generated by the OCR process and no images whatsoever. So - you can search the text version with your keywords, establish the issue the results are in, and go to the PDF version. You can also search directly at Google Books, and in some (but not all) cases this will take you to the PDF page(s) you're looking for. Or a snippet.

Newer, post-1922 issues of PW may be available at your local library in print or microfilm versions or in some cases may be purchased in print online.

There is a treasure trove of additional information in PW as well, much of it relevant to the bookselling cause. You may not know that Merle Johnson's invaluable reference American First Editions began its life as a series of checklists published in PW:

Modern Library collectors who are seeking information on publication dates would likely be interested in the following PW announcement:

And I bet that one of those wooden plaques would be a profitable find!


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