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Book History 4 (2001) 205-236

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Booksellers and Bestsellers
British Book Sales as Documented by The Bookman, 1891-1906

Troy J. Bassett and Christina M. Walter

What is being read? This question is best answered by stating what is being sold.

--"Monthly Report of the Wholesale Book Trade," The Bookman
(February 1897)

Research on book sales, as Wallace Kirsop has pointed out in this journal, has only recently gained the prominence the subject deserves. 1 Though Simon Eliot's monograph Some Patterns and Trends in British Publishing, 1800-1919 (1994) illustrates the value of compiling statistics and analyzing book production, little has been done to compile and analyze statistics on book sales in Britain. Richard Altick's appendix to The English Common Reader (1957) and its later supplements 2 remain the only attempts to compile sales statistics, and these efforts, in Altick's own words, "run the whole gamut of authenticity, from the reasonably accurate . . . to the extravagant," because the figures are drawn from a number of different sources, such as publishers' histories, letters, and trade journals. 3 In the United States this is not the case: scholars have Alice Payne Hackett's compilation 80 Years of Bestsellers, 1895-1975 (1977), which offers bestseller lists for each inclusive year, though with only minimal analysis. 4 Specifically, for the years 1895-1912, Hackett collates the bestseller lists [End Page 205] published in The Bookman (New York), and for the years 1913-75 she uses the lists from Publishers' Weekly. However, The Bookman (New York) was an imitation of The Bookman (London), which was founded in 1891 by William Robertson Nicoll. Aimed at "Bookbuyers, Bookreaders and Booksellers," the journal included literary gossip, features on popular authors, reviews, glossy illustrations, and bestseller lists. 5 These lists, found in the "Sales of Books During the Month" feature, were submitted by bookshops from around the British Isles and have been called the first bestseller lists. 6 But unlike their American cousins, they have been neither compiled nor analyzed.

This essay offers a preliminary analysis of these bestseller lists, which run from 1891 to 1901. 7 Whereas Hackett only compiled yearly lists of bestsellers, we employ our data not only to compose similar lists but also to explore a number of individual English, Scottish, and Irish bookshops, for which few or no sales records remain in existence. Adding this level of analysis goes beyond the bestsellers themselves and into a consideration of the socioeconomic factors affecting book sales during this period as well as their regional variation. In addition, we supplement this analysis by juxtaposing it with another feature of The Bookman (London), the "Monthly Report of the Wholesale Book Trade," which ran from 1894 to 1906. This feature, submitted by leading wholesalers from England and Scotland, included both book trade analysis and bestseller lists. Through it, we are able to monitor the book trade on a national level and to examine what bookshops were stocking in relation to what they were selling. In presenting our compilations, we do not pretend to offer a final word; rather, we intend to open up The Bookman (London) as a source for further investigation. Although these two features have particular limitations (as we will discuss below), they do offer a unique source of information about British book sales. Taken together, "Sales of Books During the Month" and the "Monthly Report of the Wholesale Book Trade" provide a dynamic picture of the British book trade at the turn of the century, offering a view of customers, bookshops, wholesalers, and publishers. 8

I. "Sales of Books During the Month"

Appearing in the first issue of the journal, "Sales of Books During the Month" proposed "to give from month to month statements by representative and leading booksellers of the volumes they have found most popular during the [previous] month (15th to 15th)" (October 1891). 9 Beyond this statement, The Bookman's editors never offered any further identification [End Page 206] of these "representative and leading" booksellers, nor did they reveal how they selected these particular...


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