Mapping the Early English Book Trade

Historians often call attention to the tremendous influence the 1710 Act of Anne had on the early English book trade. Commonly identified as the origin of modern copyright law, the Act laid the statutory foundations for fixed-term copyright in England, extended the ability to hold such copyrights to all individuals, and eventually toppled the monopoly that London booksellers had held on English printing since the incorporation of the Stationers' Company in 1557. Reading scholarship on this legal development over the last few months, I became curious to see how well the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) could substantiate some of the claims made in discussions of the Act. The ESTC seemed an ideal resource for this kind of analysis because, as Stephen Tabor has written, it represents “the fullest and most up-to-date bibliographical account of 'English' printing (in the broadest sense) for its first 328 years” (367). The database lists the authors, titles, imprint lines, publication dates, and many other metadata fields for each of the ~470,000 editions known to have been printed in England or its colonies between 1473 and 1800, and can therefore serve as a helpful resource with which to investigate the relationship between copyright law and literary history in the early modern period.

One of the debates surrounding the Act of Anne concerns the degree to which the statute altered the geography of the English book trade. Prior to the passage of the Act, legal historian Diane Zimmerman notes, the Stationers' Company dominated the book industry, and because the company's printers were primarily stationed in London, the book trade was also centered in the metropole. With the passage of the Statute of Anne, however, authors could sell or trade their copyrights to printers outside of London: “Now any printer [or] bookseller, wherever located within the country, could register a copyright with the Company” and “since purchasers of the copies could be located anywhere in the United Kingdom, the Stationers' Company did not regain its monopoly [on the book trade] (7). Contra Zimmerman, William Patry argues that the Act of Anne failed to undermine London's control of the book trade: “After the Statute of Anne, as before, he writes, the only purchasers of authors' works were a small group of London booksellers” (84). To investigate what the ESTC had to say on this question, I compared the geographical distribution of English printers in the half centuries before and after the passage of the Act (click for full size):

The usual cautions concerning false imprints and varying survival rates notwithstanding, the ESTC clearly demonstrates the decentralization of English printing in the wake of the Act of Anne. London of course remained the primary site of publication throughout the years covered by the ESTC—publishing two-thirds of all records from the period—though its annual share in the trade fell quite dramatically across the eighteenth century:

One can explain some of that decline by examining the growth of printing in major metropolitan areas outside of London, such as Edinburgh (responsible for 6.5% of total editions in the ESTC), Dublin (5.4%), and Boston (3.7%), which claimed the second, third, and fourth overall largest shares of the book trade according to the ESTC:


Among these figures, the explosion of printing in Edinburgh after 1750 is particularly interesting, and appears to be the result of further changes in the legal code. As John Feather notes, “The Copyright Act of 1710 (8 Anne c. 21) implied, but did not state, that it was illegal to import any English-language books into England and Wales if they had been previously printed there” (58). However, he continues, “the legislation in relation to Scotland seems to have lapsed in 1754-1755,” after which one observes tremendous growth in Scottish printing. Between 1750 and 1755, the five year average of Edinburgh printing as a percent of all printing recorded in the ESTC is 7.5%. This figure only continues to grow after the lapse of Scottish printing regulations noted by Feather: From 1755-1760, Edinburgh printing climbs to 9.0% of all printing for the five year period, from 1760-1765, the figure rises to 12.3%, and from 1765-1770, it reaches 14.4% of the ESTC totals for the five year range. These values are significant, because they suggest the real surge in the Scottish reprinting industry did not take place in the aftermath of the Donaldson v. Becket decision, as is commonly supposed, but rather with the lapse of Scottish reprinting regulations in 1755.

Having plotted the changing geography of early English printing, I was curious to see whether the ESTC could shed new light on the debate concerning anonymous printing in the early modern period. Researchers like Jody Greene have argued that the Statute of Anne was in fact designed to help combat anonymous publishing insofar as it required authors to attach their names to works if they wished to obtain copyright protection for those works (4). Years ago, Michel Foucault pioneered a version of this thesis in his essay “What is an Author?”, where he argued that the Act of Anne and its elaboration in eighteenth-century case law spurred the transition from a literary culture founded on anonymity to one founded on named authorship. More recently, however, Robert Griffin disputed such claims, arguing that “the historical record shows . . . there is no necessary relation between copyright and the appearance of the name of the author on the title page” (879). To map the changing rate of anonymity over time, I aggregated the number of anonymous and pseudonymous publications as percents of annual totals within the ESTC:


The resulting plot shows great fluctuation in anonymous publications within the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, largely because of the tremendously small number of publications for those years. In 1492, for instance, the ESTC lists only 14 publications, all but two of which (S111337 and S120825) had identified authors, which results in an aggregate estimate of anonymity for the year of .142, or 14.2 percent. Despite the year to year fluctuations within early records, however, examining anonymity rates in the aggregate leads to legible patterns: one finds a marked decline in anonymous publication rates over the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a fairly steady rise across the seventeenth century, and a slow aggregate decline in the wake of the Act of Anne. This data supports some of the the findings of Joad Raymondwho examined a small sample of records from the period and found that anonymity . . . became increasingly frequent over the course of the seventeenth century (168)—while challenging the popular thesis that anonymity thrived with the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695.

To plot the history of anonymity, though, is to beg a fundamental question: What exactly counts as an anonymous work? While the plot above treats works as anonymous only if their title pages are attributed to pseudonymous figures like “Isaac Bickerstaff” or to no author at all, there are other cases that one might well wish to classify as anonymous works. Consider the range of works attributed to “corporate” authors like the Royal Society of London or the English Parliament. Are works published by these entities anonymous publications? The way one answers this question will of course greatly affect the way one reads the history of anonymity. As a case in point, we could consult the following plot, which shows monarchical and parliamentary publishing during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:

The points here represent yearly values, while the regression lines map the smoothed trends over time. For example, the release of the ESTC to which I had access indicates that James I and Charles I published a combined total of 82 works in 1625 (both served as monarch during the year), the English and Scottish Parliaments published a combined total of 4 works during the year, and the year's total number of publications was 695, which means that monarchical publications account for 11.79 percent of the annual total while parliamentary publications account for only .5 percent  of the same. As one can see, treating the high volume of parliamentary publications from the period as “anonymous works” would create a serious spike in anonymity rates during the English Civil Wars, and would steadily inflate anonymity rates across the eighteenth century. On the other hand, refusing to include works of corporate authorship among anonymous publications (as I have done in the plot of anonymity above) makes it more difficult to answer the question: What exactly counts as anonymity in the early modern world? Whether one includes or excludes corporate authorship from the domain of anonymity, this plot of parliamentary and monarchical publications intrigues me because it maps so neatly onto the political history of the English Civil Wars: monarchical publications trump parliamentary output until the critical years of the early 1640's, after which the Parliament assumes a predominance it holds throughout the Interregnum and only loses in the Restoration. Thereafter the monarchical voice triumphs until the Statute of Anne, after which point it rapidly loses ground. Examining this plot, I can't help but wonder: To what extent is monarchical publishing a function of the crown's political power, and to what extent is that political power a function of the monarch's proximity to print?

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I want to thank Benjamin Pauley, Brian Geiger, and Virginia Schillingeach of whom kindly helped me to acquire the ESTC data on which the analysis above was performedas well as Elliott Visconsi, whose intriguing questions on copyright history continue to motivate my ongoing research.