The publishing industry in New York and wider America
We’re immensely proud to be working with Macmillan Learning in the glorious city of New York, on the East Coast of the USA. From humble beginnings, Ribbonfish have swum across the Atlantic, and we’re delighted to be serving great clients in both the UK and America.
New York is a city of opportunity, and it has been exactly this for many publishing houses that have set up shop and gone one to succeed and grow. In this article, we’ll look at the history of US publishing, with an emphasis on the Big Apple.
A history of publishing in the USA
The US publishing industry is a world-leader, generating billions of dollars a year through sales by thousands of individual publishing houses. Some of the biggest names in the industry are now multinational corporations that span the globe and produce material in hundreds of different languages.
They’ve moved beyond books, and built markets in the broader media industries of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries too. But where did it all start?
The US publishing industry can trace its origins back to a single printing press imported from England to Massachusetts in 1638. The press was used by Stephen Daye to print The Whole Booke of Psalmes a few years later. After that it was used to print numerous further religious works, both in English and Native American languages. This single press set up the area of New England, around Boston and Cambridge, as a centre of publishing.
Another press was established in Philadelphia in 1685, where soon after William Bradford built the first paper mill in North America. Among the notables of the Philadelphia publishing business was Benjamin Franklin who opened his own printing shop in 1728 to publish the Pennsylvania Gazette as well as numerous books.
Growth and Development
By the mid-nineteenth century New York had surpassed both Boston and Philadelphia to become the centre of the US publishing industry. With the commencement of the royalty system, along with the introduction of US copyright, professional authors could emerge in greater numbers, and large commercial publishing houses began to flourish at the expense of small, local printers.
It was at this time that the names we’re familiar with today began to emerge. Harper Bros, a forerunner of HarperCollins was founded in 1817, whilst John Wiley and George Putnam were established by the 1840s, soon to be followed by Charles Scribner. Such companies were able to take advantage of new transportation systems for distribution, and reduce overheads by printing books on an industrial scale for networks of small booksellers.
However much of the market was built up by reprinting pirated copies of works by British authors. Names such as Dickens, Thackeray and the Bronte sisters had their works sold unauthorised across the US without receiving any financial remuneration. It was only when American authors became popular internationally that Congress was forced into the International Copyright Act of 1891.
Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, access to literature and knowledge was the province of the rich. The big New York publishing houses were, however, at the forefront of innovation, and during that period the desire to increase sales brought about the concept of the paperback. What became widely known as ‘dime novels’ brought cheap fiction to the masses, and ensured the enduring popularity of the adventure story and detective thriller.
Into the Twentieth Century
The years after the First World War began were the real heyday of American publishing. A bold new generation of writers brought about a refreshed publishing industry to promote them.
In 1924, Simon & Schuster set themselves up to meet a gap in the market, crossword puzzles, which then became a major craze that has been popular ever since. Random House emerged around the same time as a publisher of cutting-edge literature, whilst Doubleday reprinted literary classics in paperback form, and together with Penguin in the UK succeeded in overcoming the lowbrow image that had become associated with the format.
As with so much else, the Great Depression took its toll on the publishing industry and many publishers didn’t survive. The industry continued to struggle until the post-war boom brought increased demand once more.
Mergers and consolidation
Since the 1960s the trend has been towards contraction in the publishing industry. Competition from television and radio, as well as the increased diversification that they encourage has ensured great changes to the wider media industry. Publishing companies often now sit within larger media groups, whilst consolidation amongst retailers has increased competition and reduced their profit margins.
The process of consolidation has gathered pace into the twenty-first century with the rise of new media. Online book retailers and eBooks have changed every aspect of publishing and, whilst the printed book continues to sell in ever-greater numbers, the way they are marketed and sold has changed beyond recognition.
Profiling Major Publishers in New York City
New York City is well known as one of the world’s great centres of publishing and, even with recent consolidation, it still remains at the forefront of the industry. Today, the city is home to a large number of established names, as well as numerous up and coming independents.
Macmillan Learning is making waves with a focus on unrivalled educational materials across multiple media, driving successful learning in classrooms across the world. They’re going strong, and so are many other publishers in the area.
Here are some of the other notable players in the city that never sleeps.
The Big Five
New York is home, at least in the US, to three of the big five publishers. HarperCollins is nowadays a subsidiary of News Corp, but its name is derived from two merged companies: Harper & Row of New York and William Collins of London. Their merger took place in 1990 and the company remains a major global player in every genre through a dizzying range of imprints.
A similar company is Penguin Random House. The latter was founded in 1927 and its name was derived from the founders’ intention to ‘publish a few books at random’, however they ended up publishing rather more. Among them was James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1934, which established Random House as a major publisher. The merger with Penguin came in 2013 as a response to the rise in online retailing.
As we’ve mentioned already, Simon & Schuster was founded in 1924. It started out as a publisher of crossword puzzles, which it made the great craze of that year. It remains the biggest publisher of crosswords, but also publishes over 2,000 titles annually across a number of different imprints and genres.
One could argue that all books are educational, but those specifically targeted at schools and academia have attracted a number of specialist publishers, including our very own Macmillan Learning, which was created with the merge of Macmillan New Ventures and Macmillan Higher Education.
New York has certainly had its part to play, and among the notable companies is McGraw-Hill. This is one of the big three educational publishers, which can trace its origins back to 1888. Since then, it’s grown steadily through regular acquisitions, and now operates in 44 countries and over 60 languages.
Scholastic is another of the big boys with a core business in educational materials, however it also holds the US rights to such brands as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. It remains the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books.
Wiley is also an academic publisher based in New York. Its range of books, journals and encyclopaedias include the well-known For Dummies series. Less well known is that it was also the first publisher of many great American literary figures of the nineteenth century including Fenimore-Cooper, Irving, Melville and Poe.
Another with a significant foothold in educational publishing is W. W. Norton. The company was founded in 1923 and has been owned by its employees since the 1960s. Its specialities include fiction, nonfiction, poetry and cookbooks. Among its best-known publications are the renowned Norton Anthologies.
Amid all the mergers and consolidations among the big publishing houses, it’s important to remember that a great many independent publishers are still flourishing in New York City.
Among them are Akashic, a brilliant independent publisher whose mission statement announces its intention to remain forever independent. It specialises in urban literary fiction and political non-fiction, by less well-known authors from outside the mainstream.
Another trailblazer back in the seventies was The Feminist Press. Now almost an institution, it continues to publish works promoting social justice with, as its name suggests, an emphasis on the female perspective.
The New Press, which is now more than twenty-five years old, is an important non-profit publisher of nonfiction. It was founded in 1990 to offer something different from the big commercial publishers and produces up to 50 titles a year. Independent publishers aren’t always so young either. Despite its name, New Directions was founded in 1936 and is still going strong, publishing about thirty books annually from its 8th Avenue HQ.
There are other independent publishers that stick out too. Ugly Duckling is a Brooklyn-based specialist in fiction, poetry and art, as well as translated literature. The latter is an area in which Archipelago also specialise. Some of the most interesting and cutting-edge fiction available comes from the likes of Tyrant Books, and Other Press.
- Publishing Focus – An interview with Akashic Books
- Spotlight: The future of bookshops in the modern age
- Where are the geographical superpowers of publishing?