A History of Cheap Books

The history of reading is intricately linked to the history of the book. Only when books became a common commodity did reading as a pastime reach the masses. Of course, the history of the book and the craft of book-making are also fascinating in their own right. Web-sources abound. Take a look at this neat condensed history of book design (1501-1880). Notice item 10, Aldus Manutius’ famous mark, the anchor and the dolphin. Aldus can be credited with popularising the pocket book, or octavo, format.

A page from Aldus' octavo edition of Virgil's Georgica

His editions of classical texts emphasised the quality of the text while at the same time being comparatively cheap (Gutenberg’s Bible was a rather costly affair, its price exceeding that of a common manuscript at the time). Other printers soon adapted Aldus’ small format venture to produce cheap (qualitatively inferior and sometimes even smaller) books for on the way. In England, these came to be known as chapbooks. In the 17th century, the Dutch family Elzevir printed classics that were so cheap and popular that the aristocracy frowned upon them. The small cheap book had its true breakthrough, however, in the 19th century. The rising middle class created a new market for cheap books that focused on practicality rather than embellishment. Leather bindings were soon replaced by binding cloth (William Pickering introduced this technique in his Diamond Classics series in 1821).

The new techniques changed the marketing and the attitude towards books tremendously. W.H. Smith & Sons opened the first railway bookstall in 1848 (among the books sold there were those of Routledge’s Railway Library); Anton Philipp Reclam established the Reclam Verlag in 1828 and created one of the most successful publishing houses to date (the company also experimented with book vending machines); and Allen Lane came up with the idea of selling books in grocery stores, stationers and kiosks, and in 1935 launched the Penguin series. Today, Penguin is the world’s second largest publisher after Random House.


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