Book publishing: Twentieth Century
At the beginning of the twentieth century, literary agents appeared. Literary agents represented authors in contract negotiations and were consistently able to obtain high rates of royalties and large advance payments for their clients. These higher sums for authors decreased the publishing houses’ profit margins, making it more difficult and less common for houses to speculate on new authors. Literary agents may also have been indirectly responsible for the increased marketing efforts that appeared around the same time: As higher payments to the author became common, publishing houses placed additional emphasis on generating sales to maintain reasonable profits.
In spite of resource shortages, Word War I had a relatively small impact on the American publishing industry. One significant effect of the war was a decrease in purchasing power among the middle class, and publishers began to look to other markets to maintain their profits. During this time period, universities grew significantly in both number and size, causing the demand for college textbooks to grow rapidly. Eventually, many publishing houses depended on their educational departments to generate income and support less profitable undertakings. Textbooks were also in demand in primary and secondary schools; these textbooks became another significant income generator, as the adoption of a textbook or series guaranteed large-scale sales, with the likelihood of a long-term relationship.
The Great Depression had an immediate effect on America’s publishing industry, bringing drastically decreased sales, minimal profits, and numerous bankruptcies. Publishers began to experiment with new marketing techniques to attract readers, including holding the first book fair in America, which was held by The New York Times during the 1930’s. To mitigate the effects of the Depression on booksellers, Simon&Schuster developed the policy of accepting returns on unsold books for credit against future purchases. Other publishers quickly followed, and the practice became standard in the industry.
As did World War I, World War II had minimal negative impact on the publishing industry, and postwar boom conditions stimulated significant economic growth. The middle class grew quickly, causing the book market to expand, and the number of publishing houses grew in response. In addition, the paperback was reintroduced to the market after the war, allowing publishers to sell cheaper books to a wider audience. By the early 1950’s, the paperback had become the most widely distributed type of book; this remained true into the twenty-first century.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, the publishing industry became increasingly centered in a few large conglomerates. As had been the case in the nineteenth century, small publishers were unable to compete and were forced out of business. Around the same time, a new category of publishers was created: the nonprofit press. Nonprofit presses are typically focused on putting forth the work of a particular genre or set of genres, but they all share the mission of producing work that otherwise might be passed over by the larger publishers as lacking in commercial appeal.
A new medium, e-books, or electronic books, appeared in 1971, when Michael Hart created the first electronic book: a copy of the Declaration of Independence. In spite of initial concerns about e-books infringing on the traditional book market, major publishing companies began to work at the end of the twentieth century to understand and establish themselves in the e-book market. During the early twenty-first century, e-books began to gain mainstream acceptance and expanded into new formats, such as installment books compatible with cell phone displays.