Victorian Literature Publishing
Troy Bassett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0156


Over the course of the 19th century, British publishing evolved unevenly from a handcrafted industry run by gentleman publishers to the modern industrialized mass media of the 20th century. At the same time, the period witnessed a massive increase in the size of the reading public due to population growth and increased literacy. These changes affected all aspects and levels of literary production. For authors, the increase in publishing output meant more opportunities to earn a living at writing, particularly for women writers and especially in the fields of literature and journalism. For publishers, the growing demand for print materials led to the adoption of mechanized production and the cultivation of a mass market for print. For readers, the increasing abundance of print materials at decreasing prices created a mass market where thousands of publications competed for readers’ eyes and pennies. To take the novel as one example, early in the century a new novel frequently appeared in an expensive three-volume edition of 500 copies priced at 31s 6d (thirty-one shillings and sixpence) each, a price well out of the range of the majority of readers who then depended on circulating libraries for access. By the end of the century, a new novel typically appeared in a one-volume edition of thousands of copies priced at 3s 6d or 6s each, an appealing price for nearly all middle-class readers. Magazine publication followed a similar transition: in the 1830s, monthly magazines such as Bentley’s Miscellany cost 2s 6d; at midcentury, monthly magazines such as the Cornhill cost 1s; and by century’s end, monthly magazines such as the Strand cost 6d, with stark increases in circulation. Past scholarship of publishing has often focused on the history of one author’s or publisher’s experiences in publishing: for instance, the descriptive bibliography of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s editions of poems or the general history of William Blackwood’s publishing company. Based on this well-developed bibliographical foundation, recent scholarship has been influenced by the development of book history as a field—the History of the Book, sometimes called print history or print culture, focuses on the authorship, production, and reading of books as a material practice. Broadly speaking, the history of the book investigates book production as an important cultural practice: in what ways do the interactions between authors, publishers, and readers affect what print material is produced? Alternately, how do social forces—such as class and gender—affect the production and consumption of print materials? The history of the book field has greatly widened our scope of study to, among other things, the lives of lesser-known authors, the business practices of publishers, and the experiences of readers: for example, on the experiences of women authors in the literary marketplace, the adoption of steam-powered presses by magazine publishers, or the changing tastes of children readers.

General Overviews

Several general overviews of Victorian publishing have appeared in the last several years. The most concise points of entry are the book chapters Bassett 2015, Buurma 2013, Eliot 2012, and Patten 2016, or the relevant chapters in McKitterick 2009. Broader introductory treatments of Victorian publishing can be found in Altick 1998 (an early and groundbreaking study), Jordan and Patten 1995 (an early and important collection of essays exhibiting a range of work in the field), and McKitterick 2009 (a landmark history of the book in Britain). For a wider historical background in British publishing, Feather 1994 and Feather 2006 survey the history of copyright and publishing respectively from their origins in the 16th century to the present with generous discussion of the Victorian period.

  • Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800–1900. 2d ed. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

    An early and groundbreaking study which surveys the economic, political, and social forces that led to the huge increases in publishing and reading in the 19th century.

  • Bassett, Troy J. “Publishing and Circulation.” In The Encyclopedia of Victorian Literature. Vol. 3. Edited by Dino F. Felluga, Pamela K. Gilbert, and Linda K. Hughes, 1392–1398. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

    A short chapter on Victorian publishing with an emphasis on the literary production of fiction, journalism, and poetry.

  • Buurma, Rachel Sagner. “Publishing the Victorian Novel.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Victorian Novel. Edited by Lisa Rodensky, 87–110. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    A short chapter on Victorian fiction publishing using several specific examples of novels.

  • Eliot, Simon. “The Business of Victorian Publishing.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. 2d ed. Edited by Deirdre David, 36–61. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCO9780511793370.004

    A short chapter on Victorian publishing with an emphasis on the production of the novel.

  • Feather, John. Publishing, Piracy and Politics: An Historical Study of Copyright in Britain. London: Mansell, 1994.

    A short history of the development of copyright law and practices, the foundational principle in modern publishing.

  • Feather, John. A History of British Publishing. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

    A short general history of British publishing from its origins in the 16th century to our day.

  • Jordan, John O., and Robert L. Patten, eds. Literature in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century British Publishing and Reading Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    An early collection of essays in Victorian book history showing a wide range of topics and approaches including book Illustration, periodical production, and Serialization practices.

  • McKitterick, David, ed. The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Vol 6, 1830–1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    The relevant volume in the massive Cambridge History of the Book in Britain project with solid introductory chapters on a range of topics including authorship, publishing, and reading.

  • Patten, Robert L. “The New Cultural Marketplace: Victorian Publishing and Reading Practices.” In The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Literary Culture. Edited by Juliet John, 481–506. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    A well-written chapter giving an historical overview of the literary marketplace from both the producers’ and readers’ points of view.

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