Publishers’ Circular and General Record of British and Foreign Literature

The Publishers’ Circular is a trade journal for the publishing industry, and its comment on and display of the trade also provide a context for the other titles in ncse. The Circular was first organised in late 1836, and before the appearance of its official first, sixteen-page issue the following October, two pilots were trialled in April and June 1837. In relation to the span of ncse serials, its launch in 1837 coincides with the demise of our earliest title and its run outlives (and records) them all. However, unlike the contents of the other ncse titles, the content of the Publishers’ Circular is not primarily discursive. Its regular issues consist largely of lists, tables, and advertisements that call to mind the origin of serials in records of tide tables, international shipping schedules and news, foreign and domestic fiscal information and the commercial basis of the press. Its title words ‘Circular’, ‘Record’, ‘British’ and ‘Foreign’ invoke this history. Its fortnightly list of current and immanent publications is at the heart of each issue, and its principal orientation is to books. In its 1837 manifesto it makes a distinction between the list which covers all new works, and its adverts which are ‘Connected with Literature and the Fine Arts’. Although Bennett cautions that it was ‘far from complete in listing periodicals’ (25), it did include serials, which are regularly the objects of advertisement (See for example 6 December 1880, 1276-1277, 1280)

The relation of the Circular to commerce also distinguishes it from the other titles. Its readership was initially primarily within the retail trade and bulk buyers (Eliot and Sutherland 6), to whose members three-thousand copies (the bulk of the print run) were distributed free 1837-1843, after which this policy ended. These included 100 to American and German colleges, 100 to Colonies and army depots, 900 to book societies and literary people, 1000 to country booksellers, 550 to clergymen and Heads of Colleges, and 350 to London booksellers (Eliot and Sutherland 6). The remainder of the print run was on public sale, and available in bulk to retailers for distribution to their customers at the cover price, initially 2d/ issue, but soon 3d.

The new journal, then, was largely financed by its advertisements from the trade for the trade rather than a combination of advertising revenue and cover price; and, after a downward adjustment to the rates, advertising and revenue flourished. Given that Sampson Low, the first publisher/editor did not own the journal and was paid only by retaining the advertising revenue to set against his costs, he could be expected to be a highly motivated salesman, keen to succeed, and in this hope, his proprietors were not mistaken. Circulating useful information to the trade, as well as to individual readers, the advertising element of the title was from 1851 annually sold to the public at large on the strength of its graphics in special Christmas issues. In December 1880, for example, it contained 108 of the ‘choicest illustrations’ from the ‘Christmas Gift and Presentation Books’, in addition to the usual display advertisements. Not only did the Circular list and advertise potential gifts, but it was itself packaged as a Christmas gift: a month in advance, on 1 November 1880, it was advertised as available to retail booksellers in bulk, with ‘Ornamental Wrapper, with Name and Address; but these cannot be secured unless ordered at once’.

This orientation of the Publishers’ Circular to advertising was articulated in the layout of the front page of each issue, an emphasis that remained throughout its nineteenth-century run, through several adjustments of layout. Initially the cover was arranged in four horizontal slabs of type. The identification of print with the dissemination of knowledge, reflecting the trope of the March of Intellect from the 1830s when it was founded, explains the cameo portrait of Francis Bacon which is part of the masthead in the top quarter of this page, with the title of his work, The Advancement of Learning around him, and the title of the publication above the cameo echoing its curve. Below, prominently as the main item on the page, is the Table of Contents. In an issue from 1870 (18 Jan) the Table of Contents includes the subject categories of the works advertised in the same sequence as discursive departments such as ‘Literary Intelligence’. So ‘Classics’ in the Table of Contents refers to Advertisements for classics publications. This representation of the departments of the journal changes by 1880, suggesting a shift in the concept of the publication, though the layout remains similar. Below the Departments, in three columns and smaller type is an alphabetical list of Advertisers that supplements the list of subjects above, and below that is a few lines of ‘Literary Intelligence’ which draws the reader inside the issue. On occasion, this space is instead filled with an address or notice to the trade by the editors, in discursive or advertising form. The notice of the forthcoming Christmas number is located here, for example, 1 November 1880. In the course of the decade, first the bottom layer disappears by 1882, and when in 1887 another layer is transferred inside, it is the Table of Contents, leaving the list of Advertisements on the title page.

In addition to the Christmas number, other special, seasonally-related, bumper issues were dedicated to Education; they appeared twice a year from 1840 in January and August. Neither the Christmas nor Education issues were Supplements, but they did cost more than the ordinary issue for those dates, which they supplanted. The Circular did publish actual Supplements; from 1842 it merged and edited the lists of new publications included in its fortnightly issues in a separate volume published annually. It adopted the title with which we know it, The English Catalogue, only in 1860; beginning as a Catalogue of Books Published in London, it expanded to A Catalogue of Books Published in the United Kingdom in 1845, and to The British Catalogue in 1857. This consolidated for the trade and interested institutions such as libraries a salient portion of the fortnightly issues – the list -- in an annual overview of published works that facilitated retrospective ready reference. Although sold separately, as well in conjunction with the Circular, it is interesting that in practice it is bound into the annual volumes of the serial in British Library copies, the source of the ncse edition. Two other supplements occur on either side of 1880-1890; one monthly addresses foreign literature, which was a special area of interest in Sampson Low’s list (Monthly Bulletin of American, Colonial and Foreign Publications, 1869-1873), and the other, also monthly, is dedicated to serials (Publishers’ Circular Newspaper, Magazine and Periodical Supplement, which from issue 35 was re-titled The Newsagent’s Chronicle, 16 February 1895-December 1897; from 1898 it was published by William Dawson and Sons, and appeared independent of the Publishers’ Circular). Although the Publishers’ Circular is represented in ncse by only a decade of its sixty-three year run in the nineteenth century, this fragment occupies a significant percentage of the ncse resource of nearly 100,000 pages. The explanation is that as a bi-monthly it is relatively frequent, that by 1880 it has a large annual supplement (of 108 pp), and that advertisements regularly swell pagination in special, seasonal issues. Between 1880 and 1890 pagination fluctuates from issue to issue, seemingly dependent on the number of advertisements; increases in pagination are not confined to special issues.

The origins of the Publishers’ Circular itself are similar to those of the early proto newspapers in that it was launched and initially owned by a group of interested parties in a single industry in order to foster communication and the circulation of information among them. As Eliot and Sutherland observe (5) not only was it an antidote to the dominant relationship among the joint proprietors of rivalry, but its ‘conductor’/publisher, Sampson Low, saw its potential benefits for workers in the trade, enabling them, for example, to seek and find work. Specific if related interests also figured in the launch of the title in 1837. Low involved the publication with the Booksellers Provident Association founded in the same year, and a shared interest in the policing of underselling united the fourteen proprietors, with Low the Secretary of the Publishers Group they formed to combat this practice. Perhaps it was this matrix of motives that accounts for the distinction between the resultant publication, with its variety of features, and its predecessors, which were primarily catalogues and Advertisers, such as Bent’s, with which the founders of the Publishers’ Circular were dissatisfied (Boase).

From early on the Publishers’ Circular included obituaries, and features of each issue well established by 1880 were added over the years, including special issues for education from 1840, correspondence in 1841, annual volumes of the English Catalogue in 1842, annual illustrated Christmas issues from 1851, statistics in spring issues from 1854, and book reviews. (Eliot and Sutherland, 5-6). The other incremental development was the discursive news section of ‘Literary Intelligence’ which begins each number in the ncse edition; ranging from news to gossip, it is a brief few paragraphs at its introduction in 1842 and up to seven pages in 1870, having been augmented after 1855 when the repeal of Newspaper Stamp Duty resulted in the proliferation of weeklies (and presumably more news) and then again in relation to the appearance of a rival, the Bookseller, published by Joseph Whittaker in 1858. Sampson Low who from 1837 had published and conducted the Circular for its publisher proprietors, bought them out in 1867, and in 1875 Low retired, and passed the title to the publishing firm Edward Marston, Searle, Rivington, and Robert Marston. Edward Marston who had become Low’s partner in 1856 (E. M., 431) now became its conductor, aided by George Stephen, Stuart J Reid and J A Steuart as editors (Eliot and Sutherland 7/8). But Marston’s sway over the contents had begun twenty years earlier, with the regular inclusion of a variety of statistics in the mid 1850s due to Marston’s genius in this type of knowledge, so popular in this period. Altick’s deployment of the Publishers’ Circular in The English Common Reader (108, 358) tacitly acknowledges this aspect of the title, the statistics themselves, but also the publication’s expertise in assessing them.

By 1880 the front, discursive section of each issue had significantly expanded, and on 2 Feb 1880 consisted of five departments, ‘Literary Intelligence’, ‘Publishers’ Notices of Books Just Issued’ ‘American [News and] Notes’, obituaries, and ‘Books Received’ [ie book reviews], which meant that it offered a specialist focus in the kind of discourse that weeklies such as the Athenaeum were offering to its readers weekly. It then goes on to various types of lists – of Books Published in Great Britain in the preceding fortnight, preceded by an Index to this list, showing those at the end of the production process, now distributed and on the market; these are followed by groups of adverts that calibrate and reveal the latter stages of the production process: Books Now First Advertised as Published, and Books in the Press; it moves to reprises and reprints: New Editions and Books Lately published. ‘Miscellaneous’ includes advertisements for book binders and printers. What follows indicates the status and nature of the trade, as seen in ‘Businesses for Sale’, ‘Assistants Wanted’, and ‘Want Situations’. Finally, there is a glimpse of the secondhand market, in ‘Books Wanted to Purchase’.

For the decade of the Publishers’ Circular included in ncse, the statistics that appear fall into two categories, recurring sets and infrequent sets. The first group includes subjects that are commonly updated over the decade, if not annually: the German Book Trades, United Kingdom newspapers, Import and export of raw and printed materials, and analytical tables of books published in given years. These comprise the core information defined at this time as important adjuncts to the fortnightly lists. Other topics treated statistically more occasionally indicate the locus of the publishers’ world in the decade. They refer to bulk buyers such as national, city and university libraries at home and abroad, classes of books such as the religious book or education texts, format of books, piracy, fine printing, and imports They include the French National Library, publishing in Japan, Cambridge University Library, Continental Libraries, Murray’s Annual Trade Sale, Royal Society of Literature, the Foreign Bible Society, Swiss printing, Glasgow libraries, London Library, USA book trade, Standard Book-size figures, Sale of pirate copies of Ben Hur; Australian exports, American educational books, Imported books, UK education, Publications of the Religious Tract Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society (Eliot and Sutherland 22). These aspects of the market and of production underlie the industry, and the print artefacts we read today. They afford later readers such as ourselves a glimpse of the medium in which nineteenth-century print was lodged, to which William St Clair in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period refers us, though without taking the periodical press into account.

By 1880, then, the title had recorded and kept up with the prospering trade, having expanded its usefulness well beyond its fortnightly list. While the presence of the list and the proliferation of advertisements may suggest that the Publishers’ Circular is broadly an Advertisers’ Directory (Wiener, 155) and comparable to annual publications such as Mitchell’s, May’s, Sell’s, or Willing’s press directories, its address and its functions in the trade were quite different from the beginning. Book-oriented but inclusive of serials, it was directed not at advertisers but retailers and even the reading public. Its serial frequency ensured its topicality, a pronounced news element up-dated fortnightly, not possible in annual publications. Its content development by 1880, including letters to the editor, reviews of new books, announcements and gossip confirm this serial modality, geared to micro aspects of current events in the trade. On the anniversary of the 1000th number on 16 May 1879, Low himself had assessed its history in the journal, giving us a full, timely estimate from which to view the ncse decade. In the 1880s the Circular’s dismissal of John Maxwell’s objections to the allocation of railway book stalls to one bookseller (1 March 1882, 186) and their warm approval of the court case against Vizetelly (1 Jun 1889, 654-655) and his publication of ‘the filthy light literature of France’ [Zola] are indicative of the robust interventions of the editors on day to day issues from their position as representatives of a powerful lobby of businessmen and mainstream publishers.

Publishers’ Circular in ncse

Sources of the Publishers’ Circular in the ncse edition derive from St Pancras runs.

Works Cited

  • Altick, Richard, 1957,The English Common Reader. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bennett, Scott, 1978, ‘Trade Publications’, Victorian Periodicals. A Guide to Research, ed. J. Don Vann and Rosemary T. VanArsdel, New York: MLAA, 24-26.
  • Boase, G. C., 2004, “Low, Sampson (1797–1886).” Rev. M. Clare Loughlin-Chow. In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP. (accessed May 11, 2008).
  • Eliot, Simon and John Sutherland, 1988, ‘The Publishers’ Circular 1837-1900. Guide to the Microfiche Edition’, Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey.
  • M., E. [Marston, Edward], ‘Sampson Low’, Publishers’ Circular, 1 May 1886, 431.
  • St Clair, William, 2004,The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, Cambridge: CUP.
  • Tye, J Reginald, 1989, ‘The Periodicals of the 1890s’, Victorian Periodicals, ed J.Don Vann and Rosemary T. VanArsdel, Vol. 2, New York: MLAA, 13-31.
  • Wiener, Joel H., 1978, ‘Advertisers’ Directories’, Victorian Periodicals. A Guide to Research, ed. J. Don Vann and Rosemary T. VanArsdel, New York: MLAA, 154-155.

Laurel Brake