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BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling
Excerpt from Chapter 1

Essential Book History for Booksellers

by Craig Stark

#147 16 August 2010

Book history? If you're a bookseller struggling to revive a failing business or just somebody getting started in the book trade, you might be tempted to skip this chapter. After all, how is learning something about the history of books going to make you any money today? Over time, yes, especially if you move into buying and selling antiquarian books, it would certainly make sense; after all, you can't adequately present a 16th century book for sale if you don't know something about how books were made 400 or 500 years ago, not to mention have a grasp of its historical context. But you need to make something happen now, and what's up with this anyway? No other bookselling how-to has ever had much (and usually nothing!) to say about book history, let alone charged right out of the blocks with it. When do we get to the meat and potatoes? What about sourcing inventory? That's the holy grail, right?

I won't even try to convince you that this is where you need to start, but I can ask you to trust me on this, to carefully read this chapter, perhaps several times, and ponder its implications for your future in bookselling. If you do, I believe that you'll come to see that it wouldn't make sense to start anywhere else but here. I also believe that, as you make your way through this book, you'll begin to see that everything that follows this chapter is built on its foundation, especially the chapters on sourcing inventory!

As a student of book history myself, I can report that most book history publications are a tough go. There aren't enough Henry Petroski's out there who can make corpses get up and dance (cf. The Book on the Bookshelf); on the other hand, there are way, way too many historians/bibliographers who have taken pen in hand only to put sunrises to sleep. As an illustration of what I'm shooting for, let's take something you see in a lot of history books - a chronology. Chronologies make frequent appearances in history books because they offer a framework, something to hang things on in your mind. I could easily compile an extended list of important dates in book history, annotate them in detail, and shove them in your face, but I'm guessing that you, as a bookseller, will want to know what you need to know to compete and get on with it. In the spirit of getting on with it, here, then, is my complete historical chronology of the book for booksellers - the essential dates you need to know:

1454 (or 1455)

January 1, 1501



1950 to present


Pretty painless, huh?

Let's look at why these dates mean something to booksellers.

1454 (or 1455)

This one you probably already know. It's the most likely year in which the first major book printed with movable type was produced - The Gutenberg Bible - and it signaled the onset of what we have come to call the Gutenberg Revolution, though bear in mind that this wasn't by any means the first appearance of a printed book (and not Gutenberg's first effort either). We would need to travel back many centuries to arrive at that. But if you take nothing else away from this, understand that it would be impossible to understate how revolutionary a leap this was in the evolution of the book, not to mention civilization itself. Books finally became accessible to many. Booksellers were born.


I'd like to say that this date marks another monumental event, but the fact is it's a somewhat arbitrary if useful moment in time. If this makes you uneasy, you'll be happy to hear that there's a payoff: January 1, 1501 is universally agreed upon as the point at which we stop calling books incunables and start calling them books. An incunable, then, is a book (or pamphlet or, sometimes, broadside) printed from moveable type during the 15th century. It's unusual to have precise definitions that we can count on over centuries in bookselling. Savor it. The British Library catalogs something approaching 30,000 extant incunable titles produced in Europe, approximately 70% in Latin with typical print runs in the hundreds. If you ever have the privilege to handle an incunable, here is a superb starting point for research.


This is the so-called hand-press period - and again, these are to some extent arbitrary dates. Johannes Gutenberg completed construction of his first hand press in 1440, and widespread use of hand presses continued well into the 1800s. A bigger window than ours, and many hand presses are still in use. What the hand press period does represent, however, is the approximate end of experimentation with hand presses and their associated printing techniques and a stabilization of same, somewhere around the turn of the 15th century, that was to embrace an extraordinarily extensive period of time in which very little changed in the book production process.

A typical 16th century hand press:

The hand-press period is an important one for booksellers. Even if you aren't actively looking for hand-press era books, the likelihood of encountering them incidentally on the scouting trail is pretty high, especially examples produced in latter half of the 18th century. Your ability to work with them without having to wholesale them to more knowledgeable booksellers will repay itself again and again.


The machine-press period, as you might guess, marks the introduction of technology that accelerated book production. Steam powered presses were the first to appear, followed by binding and composing machinery. This period also heralds the introduction of machine made paper - a mnemonic convenience for us because pretty much everything leaps forward at the same time. In 1800 all paper was still being produced as it always had been - hand made, sheet by sheet, from rags - but by the 1820s machine-made paper (produced in continuous rolls) drew even, then surged ahead in the ensuing decades, more so when wood pulp paper became available about mid-century.

A typical 19th century machine press:

1950 to present

Technological changes aside, until the mid-20th century, most books were still being made essentially as they had been since the 15th century, that is, via inking the face of metal type, pressing paper onto it, assembling the printed paper into gatherings and sewing them into blocks to which bindings were applied. It was an amazingly consistent 500-year run. Today, of course, the great majority of books are produced by different processes. More about these later.

So - think of the above fleshed out chronology as a framework upon which to build additional knowledge. If it's brand new to you, refer back to it until you've got it down cold. If not, it never hurts to dust one's skeletons.

Next, there are several aspects of book history that need to be addressed in some depth before we move on - paper and printing. A working, bookselling understanding of both is critical.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The complete chapter can be purchased either as a single issue of the New Gold Edition or by purchasing a subscription to the complete book (approximately 20 chapters with a projected completion date of Fall, 2011). Click here to purchase.

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