A History of British Publishing

by John Feather (Routledge, 2nd ed. 2006): 265pp, £22.43 (pbk), ISBN 978 0415302265.

Reviewed by Gillian Clarke

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This is a fascinating book, starting in the 14th century and working its way through to 2006. I quote from the book's blurb: 'John Feather considers not only the publishing industry itself but also areas affecting and affected by it, from education, politics, technology and law, to religion, custom and class. He traces the history of publishing books in Britain, looking at how they were financed, produced and distributed.' Yes, indeed.

From printers to war

As I read the book, I marked passages that I wanted to mention in this review. There are, however, far too many! So I am falling back on listing some of the aspects covered:

  • printers as the first publishers
  • the transition from manuscript to print
  • censorship/restrictions on who might publish
  • copyright and authorship
  • distribution and transport
  • books for children
  • family firms (e.g. Longman, Macmillan, John Murray)
  • remaindering (it goes back quite a long way!)
  • mechanization
  • the origin and death of the Net Book Agreement
  • education and its implications for publishing
  • libraries and their implications for publishing
  • serial novels (e.g. Dickens)
  • publishing for the English-speaking world
  • the effect of war on publishing.

Employees and references

I am a bit surprised that – apart from passing reference to the effect of the world wars on staffing levels – there is no mention of the employees, especially the relatively recent trend to outsource much of the work and why. But perhaps that's for another book.

I appreciate now the comments people have made about reference citations being distracting. This book must have been written for academics, because there are 22 pages of references and reference citations are sprinkled throughout – sometimes only three or four per page, sometimes several more. (Particularly distracting were the, fortunately rare, citations such as 'Jones 1996–98, vol 3: 21–24'!)


Nevertheless, the writing style is fluent and easy to read (apart from my quibble about many instances of 'which' that should have been 'that') and I much enjoyed the book. I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in finding out about the industry of which we are an important part.

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