Magazines are many things. They are heralds and historians, communicating (and occasionally even foreshadowing) history as it is being made and, in the process, becoming a repository for it. They are educational enterprises, circulated in order to inform; fiscal enterprises, monetized for sustainability and for profit; and objets d’art, designed to be held and admired. They aspire to objectivity in their records, yet also deliver the subjective by way of criticism and columns of opinion. They are printed and bound in paper, a product of the cellulose fibers derived from dead plants, but issue by issue, they grow and mature, changing their positions and purposes. They have lifetimes, however metaphorical those may be.
Over the course of 150 years—an inarguably impressive lifetime—Publishers Weekly has grown from a weekly trade circular edited single-handedly by Frederick Leypoldt from his offices at 712 Broadway in Manhattan into a publication that has recorded the history of the American book publishing business for a century and a half, with a staff roughly 50 times that of its original. (Geographically speaking, on the other hand, we haven’t gone too far: PW’s new offices on West 23rd Street are only a bit further than a mile from its original home.) This magazine has, at one time or another, taken on all of the efforts described above. Sometimes, it even did so all at once.
This piece, put together after a dive into the Publishers Weekly archives—both in print, at our offices, and online, at the Publishers Weekly Digital Archive—looks at how this publication did just that, section by section. It examines the print magazine as it exists today, attempting to chart the evolution of its principal sections, columns, and other characteristics by quarter century. How were book deals reported in 1947, 75 years ago, in what was then called Publishers’ Weekly? What sorts of advertisers supported The Publishers’ Weekly 125 years ago, in 1897? The answers to these questions may surprise you. Some certainly surprised us.
If it is doing a proper job, an anniversary issue of a magazine, like the magazine itself, will operate on many fronts. It is a history of a history, examining examinations past, and a herald twice over, commemorating present achievements and perhaps even predicting events. This particular anniversary issue is charged with the task of sifting through 150 years’ worth of annals on the book business— a business that has changed enormously over the decades, and yet in many ways seems so much the same—and looking toward its future during a time marked by enormous epidemiological, political, social, and technological uncertainty.
A daunting assignment indeed, yet celebratory in spirit. Here’s to 150 more years.
During its earliest years, the cover of Publishers Weekly looked less like the magazine covers we recognize today than the title and masthead pages of the magazine itself. The inaugural issue of the magazine, in addition to its wordmark and other qualities we more commonly associate with magazine cover pages today—the issue date, the price—bore the abbreviated name of the magazine’s editor and publisher, F. Leypoldt (for the German-born Frederick, our founder), its address, and an explanatory subheading: “a journal devoted to the interests of the publishing, printing, book, stationery, news, music, art, and fancy trades, and associated branches.”
From the start, cover advertisements were the norm, taking up approximately two-thirds, or even three-quarters, of the page. These covers often gave a good idea of which authors, books, and publishers were on the rise or at the top of their game at the time—or, at the least, which companies were flush with enough cash to shell out for a cover ad. During the magazine’s 25th anniversary year, for instance, such companies as Baker & Taylor, Merrill & Baker, Rand McNally, and, most frequently, D. Appleton & Co. regularly occupied PW’s cover space; by 1947, its 75th anniversary year, such publishers as Doubleday; Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Holt made frequent cover presentations, as they do today.
The first color cover of PW was published on Nov. 20, 1886, and featured only one color in addition to its typical black, white, and grayscale. That color, featured prominently on the cover of the magazine’s “illustrated Christmas number,” was red—a color that would go on to serve as the magazine’s primary hue for its wordmark beginning with its July 25, 1994, redesign, and even more prominently in its current logo, which was revealed in its first form on the cover of the May 2, 2005, issue.
Red would return to the cover of the Jan. 5, 1936, issue for a front page, blocky illustrated ad for Doubleday, Doran & Co., and in the coming years illustrated cover images, rather than written advertisements, became the norm at the magazine. Color became a more consistent element of those illustrated covers—and of the magazine’s pages, although color ads had certainly run before—during the years of WWII, especially after the magazine’s Aug. 8, 1942, redesign.
That issue saw the article The finally dropped from the magazine’s name and its wordmark reimagined in a Caledonia font—drawn by Charles C.S. Dean “in the spirit of the beautiful lettering by Frederic W. Goudy,” as PW’s president at the time, Frederic G. Melcher, explained in his opening editorial—and emblazoned across the top third of each cover over a single block color that rotated by the week. An exception from that design was made on the cover of the Jan. 18, 1947, issue of the magazine, which marked 75 years with an editorial cover paying homage to the magazine’s past names and wordmark designs.
Magazine covers often reflect their times, as PW’s cover certainly has throughout the years. The covers of 1972 often boasted full-page illustrations or photos, both advertising and editorial, with the magazine’s logo and wordmark shifted as close to the top of the cover as possible, to allow for more visual flexibility. Both ad and edit covers often reflected world events, such as the publication of the Pentagon Papers; the magazine’s centennial issue, published on Apr. 10, 1972, dedicated its cover to the passage of time and cultural fixations over the course of the magazine’s existence, featuring a split portrait of an astronaut’s helmet and the caricatured face of a Native American whose feathered headdress bore the words “The Last of the Mohicans.” By way of comparison, the cover of the third issue of the magazine published in 1997, on January 20, featured the face of just one person: Oprah Winfrey.
Since its birth as The Publishers’ and Stationers’ Weekly Trade Circular in 1872, Publishers Weekly has been the “bible of the book business,” and its reporting of that business’s news has been central to its purpose over the course of its existence. For many years, news made up the bulk of the parts of the magazine not dedicated to listings of forthcoming books or classified and display advertisements.
Today, PW’s News section endeavors principally to be matter-of-fact about just the facts. That was not always the case. At the beginning, one of the magazine’s main news features was a column called “Literary and Trade Gossip,” wherein the whispers of the trade were as likely to be published as hard news. (“It is rumored that the Rev. Chas. Kingsley [Canon Kingsley] will be offered the editorship of Good Words, left vacant by the death of Dr. Norman McLeod,” one such gossip item in our July 25, 1872, issue hinted.)
That column, however, wrapped its run at the end of that calendar year, replaced by a section on “Literary and Trade News,” which in its first installment announced the death of George P. Putnam and the inheritance of his business by his sons, G. Haven and J. Bishop Putnam, under the new name “G.P. Putnam’s Sons.” The news in these sections consisted of brief paragraphs in a two-column layout, some noting changes in staff or describing new books, and others noting the imminent arrivals of other books to the market, that, while jollier in tone, served as predecessor of today’s “The Week in Publishing” page of our magazine and its more immediate predecessor, news briefs, which now run online.
By 1897, the whole of the front of the book was dedicated to news stories of a longer format. As with the earlier “Literary and Trade News” section, these news items were published without byline (although certain other pieces at the time did note the author), but they had begun to look more like the reported news that readers of many publications, including this one, are accustomed to today. The first three items in the Mar. 20, 1897, issue, for instance, examined proposed tariff increases on books and a book canvasser strike, and in some cases, pictures were even used.
The tone, on the other hand, was both more florid and more opinionated, as was commonplace at the time. In some cases, it was downright snide. Of the proposed tariffs, for instance, the magazine editors had this to say:
“The revenue will scarcely be appreciably increased, and we cannot manufacture old books, at least, in this country. There is already considerable protest in the daily press, and we believe the sentiment of the book trade will be generally against so comprehensive a change.”
That style of news remained common for the magazine for years, and in 1922, it was still the standard, although illustrations were more common, as were longer pieces attributed to particular writers. By this time, the magazine also printed, in full, articles and documents pertinent to the trade taken from elsewhere: significant addresses given at book fairs, or the text of copyright bills, or even translated articles previously published in international publications, such as a piece, in the Dec. 2, 1922, issue: “How the French Book Fares in the United States,” translated from the Bulletin de la Maison du Livre Française.
Still, the magazine would often break from straight news in ways a contemporary audience would find strange, or even frivolous, as perhaps best represented by Michael Gross’s poem “The Publisher’s Jabberwock,” which ran in the Apr. 8, 1922, issue immediately following the announcement of a new bookshop opening in Chicago. While it perhaps may be that “he took his knopfy sword in hand” and “long time the houghtonmiffs he sought,” it can hardly be considered hard news. (Who, after all, is he?)
In the 1940s, how PW reported news changed significantly, and how issues were organized changed as well. Sections were more clearly laid out, with issues introduced by editorials by Melcher that were immediately followed by “Currents in the Trade,” a section of “news and comment on the trends of the week.” Topics included the American Book Publishers Council’s attempts to secure data about and from the many outlets that sold books at the time and the potential for a budding trade between American businesses and the U.S.S.R. (in the Jan. 11, 1947, issue).
While Melcher set the tone at the start of each issue, credit for the shaping of the news section at PW—indeed, for the shape of the entire magazine during this time—lies principally with Mildred Smith, who joined PW in 1920 and retired nearly 50 years later, in 1967. Working her way from assistant to Melcher (when he was the magazine’s managing editor) to coeditor of the magazine, then-editor-in-chief, Smith was the main driver behind the development of the magazine into, as her obituary in our Sept. 10, 1973, issue put it, “a news magazine and practical aid for the industry.”
By 1972, news had been broken down into a number of subsections and categories. Many of the columns were, strictly speaking, news pieces, including the “International Scene” and “Rights and Permissions.” But the primary news engines during this time were “The Week,” which ran happenings from the previous week that pertained to the book trade in stories (signed) and news briefs (unsigned) in a three-column layout; “People,” a precursor to our current “Job Moves” section, which now runs online; and “Trade News,” which focused on reporting “stories behind the book,” noting forthcoming books, books going back to print, books selling to book clubs, changes to paper price, awards in the book world, and the like.
By 1997, PW’s news section was infinitely more navigable, owing in part to its separation into a clear News department of the magazine, running right at the front of the book and with table of contents entries for each item, bylined or not. That department focused on business and finance–related news, major personnel moves, and the like. Still, the magazine had other sections dedicated to news, including “Book News,” which reported on book deals and spotlighted forthcoming books, and “Bookselling,” a section specifically for bookselling news. The May 2, 2005, redesign of the magazine once again rebranded PW’s news coverage, combining it all into a single section called “Foreword.” That lasted until the Aug. 9, 2010, issue, when the section was renamed “News” once more.
The phrase “book deals” appears with great frequency in the pages of this magazine throughout the years, but until the 1980s, the word “deals” was nearly always doing the work of a verb, not that of a plural noun. For instance: “The book deals with the historical associations, the manners and customs of all the European countries, and is valuable and interesting to young readers, and many no longer young,” the second occurrence of this phrase in our pages says of Rip Van Winkle’s Travels in Foreign Lands by Rupert Van Wert (T.Y. Crowell & Co.) in our Sept. 17, 1881, issue.
Still, the book deal was a big deal from the start. The very first issue of The Publishers’ and Stationers’ Weekly Trade Circular found its editor speculating, in a section entitled “Literary and Trade Gossip,” about George Eliot supposedly receiving “the largest sum ever agreed beforehand to be paid for a novel”: £6,000. (In today’s currency, that would be £723,000—almost $1 million.)
By 1922, a precursor to our on-sale calendar, “The Weekly Record of New Publications,” had been established, and the magazine had sections highlighting rare-book sales, estate auctions, and even classified listings for individual book sales, but no regular column covering rights. Come 1947, that had changed, with Paul S. Nathan writing a regular column on film rights acquisitions and adaptations called “Books into Films”—which evolved into another Nathan-penned column, “Rights & Permissions,” by 1972, later to be succeeded by Jason Anthony’s “Hollywood Reader.”
Meanwhile, most major book deals were reported within the larger news section as separate stories, or in a section called “Book News,” which combined deals announcements with other coverage of specific books, such as spotlighting hotly anticipated titles or announcing large reprints. That is, at least, until our Aug. 30, 1993, issue, when Maureen O’Brien inaugurated the “Hot Deals” column, dedicated to “announcing noteworthy new publishing contracts” as a standalone column within the news section, although “Book News” remained a section of its own for quite some time, and still reported some major deals. Former PW editor-in-chief (and, later, editorial director) John F. Baker later took over “Hot Deals,” before it was finally renamed “Deals” in the May 2, 2005, issue redesign that was overseen by then-editor-in-chief Sara Nelson.
In PW’s 125th anniversary issue, published in 1997, the late, long-serving former PW executive editor Daisy Maryles astutely summarized the history, importance, and influence of bestseller lists first printed in the pages of the Bookman in 1895, both in the pages of this magazine and beyond, better than any subsequent editor could. Here is a succinct summary of her three-page survey of what was then a 102-year history of bestseller lists in America.
1. Publishers Weekly launched its own lists, which would go on to become the industry standard (with all due apologies to the New York Times and its still mysterious special sauce recipe), in 1912.
2. PW’s lists were managed by one woman, Alice Payne Hackett (see: Reviews), from the late 1920s until 1974, when Maryles took them over.
3. Many in the industry had strong feelings against these lists for quite some time.
4. Despite all this, bestseller lists became, as one PW editorial put it, “a potent promotional tool for (certain) books.”
5. This tool might become even more useful once “the people who revolutionized the polling and bestseller charting of music sales in this country... introduce BookScan, which could eventually collect and analyze sales data on hundreds of books by directly assessing sales information from the cash registers of book outlets across the country.”
The present readership of this magazine knows just how effective NPD (formerly Nielsen) BookScan, whose data represent roughly 80%–85% of print book sales in this country, is in assessing sales. (Fascinatingly, a PW article from Jan. 19, 1946, noted a study that found “an eighty percent correlation” between books on the bestseller lists and books borrowed from public libraries at the time; around 80%, it seems, is still the most accurate data we can expect almost 80 years later.) That readership knows, for instance, that in 2022, the book business still does not have a universally accepted accessible method of tracking sales across formats, from digital audiobooks and e-books to print books. It also knows that many a print sale goes uncounted at ticketed author events, where books are often sold in bundles with tickets and often handled by third-party vendors who aren’t necessarily inclined to report sales to NPD quickly enough for them to make a difference on the charts.
What our readership might not know is just how frustrating earlier generations of book business insiders found bestseller lists well before BookScan. That 1946 article quoted an assertion that some in the industry considered the bestseller list to be “ ‘compounded of booksellers’ hopes and publishers’ propaganda.’ ”
A later article, in our May 1, 1961, issue, even went so far as to argue that “worst-seller list is the correct name for this cutthroat list no bookseller wants except the outlets that football a few titles as traffic-builders.”
Nonetheless, the industry, throughout its history, has remained obsessed with what books sell best, or at least with what books can be branded as selling the best. And while it may be easy to take potshots at the New York Times’s still opaque, and sometimes too easily manipulated, ranking methodologies, the history of the bestseller list, even in the pages of this magazine, is inherently convoluted. For years, PW’s editors could not decide whether books were “bestsellers,” “best-sellers,” or “best sellers,” for instance—and that’s just a cosmetic complication.
What is certain is that the books that sell are rarely the books that last, at least from a literary standpoint—although of course there is the occasional exception.
Any doubt can be cleared up quickly by sampling PW’s historical lists. Here, for instance, were the top 10 bestselling titles in fiction during our 50th, 75th, 100th, and 125th anniversary years.
1. If Winter Comes by A.S.M. Hutchinson
2. The Sheik by Edith M. Hull
3. Gentle Julia by Booth Tarkington
4. The Head of the House of Coombe by Frances Hodgson Burnett
5. Simon Called Peter by Robert Keable
6. The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
7. This Freedom by A.S.M. Hutchinson
8. Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon
9. To the Last Man by Zane Grey
10. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (tie)
10. Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright (tie)
1. The Miracle of the Bells by Russell Janney
2. The Moneyman by Thomas B. Costain
3. Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson
4. Lydia Bailey by Kenneth Roberts
5. The Vixens by Frank Yerby
6. The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
7. House Divided by Ben Ames Williams
8. Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis
9. East Side, West Side by Marcia Davenport
10. Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
1. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
2. August, 1914 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
3. The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth
4. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
5. The Word by Irving Wallace
6. The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
7. Captains and the Kings by Taylor Caldwell
8. Two from Galilee by Marjorie Holmes
9. My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
10. Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins
1. The Partner by John Grisham
2. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
3. The Ghost by Danielle Steel
4. The Ranch by Danielle Steel
5. Special Delivery by Danielle Steel
6. Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell
7. The Best Laid Plans by Sidney Sheldon
8. Pretend You Don’t See Her by Mary Higgins Clark
9. Cat and Mouse by James Patterson
10. Hornet’s Nest by Patricia Cornwell
A relatively new feature in the history of Publishers Weekly, our author profiles as they are presented today began in our 100th anniversary year with the launch of the “PW Interviews” column. These were not, despite the name, Q&A interviews of the sort we now run in our Reviews section and online but, rather, articles examining the life and works of authors of significance at the time.
The first of these, by former executive editor Barbara A. Bannon, ran in the Jan. 17, 1972, issue. Its subject was Wardell Pomeroy, who was known for his work with the pioneering sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey, and his book, then titled Kinsey: The Story of Alfred C. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research, which Harper & Row published that March. Its purpose was both evaluative and informative, with Bannon praising the “readability” of the book “compared to the rather stiff scientific prose” of Kinsey’s own work, in addition to providing a brief biography of Pomeroy and discussing his research.
While that initial piece was rather dry, “PW Interviews” became punchier as the months and years went on, and were written not just by Bannon and other PW staffers but major literary and cultural figures. Take, for instance, the profile of science fiction great Isaac Asimov, in the Apr. 17, 1972, issue, which focused not on the author’s fiction but, rather, Asimov’s Guide to Science (Basic Books), a work of nonfiction. Asimov’s profiler for the piece was Alfred Bester, himself a legendary sci-fi pioneer. “With clarity, with charm, with calm,” Bester wrote,“Ike makes everyone want to be a scientist.”
Asimov is far from being the only major writer profiled by PW. A sampling of the subjects profiled in our 125th anniversary year, for instance, includes Diana Gabaldon, whose Outlander series had chart-smashing success; David Remnick, future editor of the New Yorker; such major literary novelists as Rick Moody, Ann Patchett, and Will Self; Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, after she had received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996; the ever controversial nonfiction writer Naomi Wolf; Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Studs Terkel; linguist Steven Pinker; and George Plimpton, the founder of the Paris Review.
In many cases, these profiles are straightforward; others are profound, showing a remarkable display of trust on behalf of those profiled. Our Dec. 14, 1998, issue, for instance, saw the publication of John F. Baker’s joint profile of literary critic John Bayley and his wife of 40 years, novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, in their home, before the publication of Bayley’s memoir Elegy for Iris (St. Martin’s) the following year. At the time, Murdoch had been suffering the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease for four years. It is a remarkable feat of writerly empathy and descriptive excellence.
“Indoors, the PW visitor is ushered to a sagging chair that has to be hastily cleared of a tottering pile of books and magazines, one of three seats ranged before a dead TV set whose screen peers from among the clutter,” Baker writes. “The house’s inhabitants are in not much better trim than the house,” he continues. “Their unkempt appearance, however, fades almost instantly from consciousness under the onslaught of Bayley’s stammering rush of witty, sometimes bitchy, words, his utter openness—and the solicitous affection with which he treats Iris. For that celebrated pug face (as he likes to describe it), with the firm chin, the thoughtful eyes and the hint of perpetual inner amusement, is now an anxious mask in which the eyes dart from side to side in search of reassurance, and sometimes close as if in momentary sleep or resignation.”
By this point, the column had dropped its “s,” with the last profile branded “PW Interview”—of the biographer Stacy Schiff on the occasion of the publication of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (Holt)—running in the Apr. 25, 2004, issue. With the May 2 redesign, profiles began running under their current “Author Profile” heading. The first was of Buzz Bissinger, whose 1990 book Friday Night Lights was adapted into a 2004 film and a critically successful miniseries.
Features, Departments, and Columns
150 years is a long time, and history is often complicated. No matter how well edited a magazine is, its pages are no exception to history’s convolutions. Look no further than the tortuous history of Publishers Weekly’s features, departments, and columns. These terms have been used in a variety of ways over the decades, and in some cases interchangeably. To attempt to track them effectively over a century and a half would require its own magazine.
Still, a brief overview is warranted. Features, as they’ve existed for the past 30 years, are surveys by design, presenting broad, wide-ranging assessments of many books on a certain topic in each issue. They serve a few purposes, presenting an overview of new trends in a particular category (cookbooks, say, or travel guides) each year and giving publishers of all sizes the opportunity to get their books featured in the magazine, either in the feature itself or in accompanying ads. Or both.
PW also publishes special supplements on certain aspects or regions of the book business—Chinese publishing, say, or manufacturing. Think of these as extra big features, but more focused on the business itself rather than the books it produces. Departments, meanwhile, are like microsupplements. They run more regularly in the magazine (once a month, typically), covering such segments of the business as religious publishing and Spanish-language publishing, among others.
Then there are the columns, some of which— such as Deals—are examined elsewhere in this essay. Today, the magazine is fairly slim on regular columns, although we maintain a few: for instance, “Behind the Bestsellers,” which digs into our bestseller lists, runs weekly, while “Open Book,” a unique spin on the author profile written by Louisa Ermelino, typically runs biweekly, and our “Digital Perspectives” column runs monthly. Others run only online and on a less rigid schedule. (Such a print-oriented creation as the magazine column—even the name refers to a layout on a page—has changed dramatically with the rise of internet publishing, with its purpose often being served by e-newsletters and writers’ own digital platforms.)
Our principal print opinion column today is “Soapbox,” which debuted with the May 2, 2005, redesign, and runs weekly. It succeeded “My Say,” a column “expressing controversial views on the world of books and publishing,” which debuted in the Feb. 11, 1983, issue, with a column by Murray L. Bob, then director of the Chautauqua-Chattaraugus Library System in Jamestown, N.Y., who began his column with a simple, instantly polarizing question: “Are books needed?” (Its elaborative second question, “Will computers replace books?” has, thankfully for this magazine and all those who read it, since been answered with a resounding “No.”)
And yet the history of features, departments, and columns in this magazine is a rich one, especially after the turn of the century. The pieces that peppered PW’s pages in 1922 were many and varied, covering all of the topics one would expect and, on occasion, more. They were evocatively named: “Reminiscences of a Book Scout” and “The Right Sort of Salesman” were staples of issues following WWI. Following WWII, content was more staid, but the names were almost cheeky: “You Meet Such Interesting People” (which mostly rounded up job changes), “Tips from the Publishers” (self-explanatory), and “Shop Talk” (a bookstore column) filled the pages.
PW’s longtime editor, Frederic Melcher, was an early champion of children’s books, stemming from his pre-PW days as a children’s bookseller at Estes and Lauriat in Boston. A year after joining PW in 1918, he cofounded Children’s Book Week and later proposed both the Newbery and Caldecott Medals; he even personally paid for the bronze Newbery medal to be designed and crafted. The annual spring and fall “Children’s Book Number” issues date back to 1923, but a dedicated children’s book department was not added until 1986, when Diane Roback joined the staff and developed a monthly, then weekly, section called “Children’s Book Scene,” now largely transitioned to the semiweekly Children’s Bookshelf e-newsletter. Roback also greatly expanded the children’s review coverage in the magazine.
One flash in the pan column of particular note was “Women and Bookselling,” a “Monthly Department of News and Theory,” edited by Virginia Smith Cowper, which ran from the Dec. 4, 1920, issue, until May 27, 1922. The column did everything from analyze book plates to report on meetings of the Women’s National Book Association (whose third meeting was held at the bookshop Sunwise Turn, on East 44th Street, in New York City on Nov. 18, 1920, Cowper notes). The cliché about hindsight stands; just imagine what such a column, had it run from 1922 until 2022, could teach us today.
For the bulk of Publishers Weekly’s history, its reviews section was known by a different moniker: “Forecasts.” The name stemmed from an earlier feature of the magazine, in which forthcoming books were simply rounded up and listed in PW’s pages, forecasting arrivals of books to inform the booksellers in its audience. These sections performed a function similar to that of our contemporary announcements features, which highlight a number of forthcoming books submitted by publishers in print semiannually, broken down by category (now 15 basic ones, but previously many more detailed, such as Sports, and Women), as well as that of our on-sale calendar, an even more comprehensive feature that runs exclusively online. Often, they also attempted to predict—to forecast—how well a book might sell.
Prior to establishing the Forecasts section, PW did publish discussions and reviews of books, but typically in a form more akin to the thematic surveys found in such publications as the New York Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement than to the trade reviews it is known for today. For instance, the literary editor of the New York World Telegram, Harry Hansen, wrote an annual column in the first issue of the year for some years running, noting some of the more significant publications from the year before and assessing the overall literary quality of that year’s output.
In the postwar era, under Mildred Smith’s guidance, PW Forecasts became more evaluative in a forecasting manner like today’s Reviews, and soon became central to the magazine’s mission (as well as its influence in the trade). That began with Children’s Forecasts in the July 6, 1946, issue, when Gladys de Silva succeeded the section’s previous editor, Marguerite Vance. At first, her evaluations were on the milder side: “A pleasant type page and an exciting plot with a hint of mystery will attract youngsters who don’t read easily,” she wrote of Ned Andrews’s Cowdog (Morrow) in that issue.
By the next year, de Silva’s Forecasts were making their points with convincing voice: The Golden Egg Book by Margaret Wise Brown (S&S) was “a dazzling Easter present to the trade,” and A Is for Apple (Howell) “the best ABC book, on all counts, in a long time,” she wrote in the March 22, 1947, issue. Alice Payne Hackett, who ran the “P.W. Forecast for Buyers” section that catered to adult-book buyers, soon followed suit, with a clear tonal shift taking place in her column over the course of the following month. Arguably, the 75th anniversary year of the magazine, more than any other, set the stage for PW’s influence on American books criticism.
That’s not to say that other editors did not make their mark, including Barbara A. Bannon, the legendary and formidable editor who dominated the magazine’s fiction Forecasts during the 1970s and retired as executive editor in the early 1980s, and Genevieve Stuttaford, who was Forecasts nonfiction editor from 1975 to 1998 and served a stint editing the section as a whole. “During the period that Stuttaford was with Publishers Weekly,” our editors wrote in a story announcing her retirement, “book reviewing was greatly expanded, from an average of 3800 titles a year in the 1970s to well over 6500 titles in 1997.”
Perhaps most influential, however, was Sybil Steinberg, who joined the magazine in 1976 and served in various positions until her retirement, as senior editor for fiction Forecasts, in January 2001. Under Steinberg, boxed reviews were introduced to the Forecasts section to call special attention to certain fiction titles (nonfiction titles now as well); those boxed reviews remain a staple of the section today, including for our signature reviews— the rare trade review signed by its author, who is often a prominent figure in the literary world or publishing industry.
Steinberg succeeded Stuttaford in editing the entire section as of the Oct. 18, 1991, issue, and by November 22 of that year, PW had issued its first starred Forecast review, for David Shields’s A Handbook for Drowning (Knopf), which our reviewer described as having an “extraordinary symphony of textures and rhythms.” The explanation of the star was humble and straightforward, included at the bottom of the section’s first page: “Stars designate books of more than routine interest and merit.” Its influence on many an author’s career, on the other hand, has been anything but humble.
Post-Steinberg, the already dynamic section has continued to change, with Steinberg’s successor, Jeff Zaleski, and his successor, Louisa Ermelino—the first editor of the section once it was renamed “Reviews” following the May 2, 2005, redesign—presiding over increases in review output and the spunk and bite of the section’s prose. More recently, in late 2019, PW’s BookLife vertical, which attends to self-publishing, launched a paid review service for self-published books in both print and online. That same year, in January, PW instituted a digital-first workflow for publishing its reviews, resulting in more reviews running online only—although some had before under specific circumstances. The section, both online and in print, continues to produce an enormous number of reviews: last calendar year, our Reviews editors edited and published 7,688 reviews, 1,244 of which were web only.
Like many print magazines, Publishers Weekly has long subsisted on a combined subscription and advertising model. And what a business print advertising used to be. For nearly all of its lifetime—until, roughly, the rise of the internet and digital publishing changed print advertising for good—the pages of this magazine were flush with full-page advertisements. So flush, in fact, that in a not insignificant number of issues, readers would have to flip through scores of pages of full-page ads before they reached the table of contents, let alone the first story. A dozen or so pages was quite common for decades, but even 50–60 pages was not uncommon during the magazine’s first 100 years. (In the June 5, 1972, “Publishers’ Previews” issue of the magazine, the masthead and table of contents was on page 79.) Talk about a successful business model.
In 1887, a full-page advertisement in Publishers Weekly cost $20 (in today’s money, that’s almost $600). Still, advertisers of all stripes got the bang for their buck. On the very first page of text of the magazine during this era, even before the announcements of forthcoming books and other news, the magazine printed an “Index to Advertisers,” putting the names of its top clients right up front.
Advertisers at the time were not just publishers and distributors but book binders, booksellers, printers, paper manufacturers, typesetters, makers of ink and inkwells and pens; practitioners of any trade even tangential to the book business might show up in these pages. (Imagine ads for digital calendaring services or standing desks in the pages of the contemporary PW.) Some of these entities are still well-known today, while some are long forgotten by most in the business, or subsumed into other companies.
To comb through the magazine’s cover advertisers year by year is to see a history of the book business even our news section could not track with such immediacy. There is power, after all, in the picture, or at the very least the full-page list of one’s titles. By noting the first four cover advertisers of each calendar year during PW’s inaugural year and each subsequent quarterly anniversary year, for instance, readers can intuit the rise and fall of some publishers, the steadfastness of others, and the consolidation of still more (not to mention which companies most supported PW through advertising and when).
1872: D. Appleton & Co. (twice); J.B. Lippincott & Co.; G.P. Putnam & Sons
1897: D. Appleton & Co. (again, twice); D. Van Nostrand; the F.M. Lupton Publishing Co.
1922: Harcourt, Brace and Co.; Charles Scribner’s Sons; Frederick A. Stokes Co.; D. Appleton and Co. (to whom this magazine clearly owes quite the debt; bits of it may exist in Prentice Hall and Academic Learning Co.)
1947: Doubleday & Co. (twice); William Morrow & Co.; Alfred A. Knopf
1972: Doubleday; Harper & Row; Coward, McCann & Geoghegan (for a book, The General Was a Spy, about a former Nazi general who became a CIA spy, per now declassified documents); Lippincott
1997: Random House Children’s Publishing (announcing the renaming of the Random House Juvenile and Merchandise Group); Ballantine; Fodor’s; Dove Books
2022: Moonbow Publishing; Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends; Stygian Sky Media and Death’s Head Press; and Tundra Book Group
For much of its early lifespan, the magazine also had a booming classified section in addition to its display ads. Some of the contents of these sections will be unsurprising to anyone who read a newspaper before the dawn of the internet: positions open, positions wanted, businesses for sale, and the like. More fascinating was a long-running section called “The Weekly Book Exchange,” which listed books wanted and for sale. In 1922, subscribers wishing to post in these pages were charged 15 cents a line and nonsubscribers 20 cents. And books were, indeed, wanted: in some issues, this section would stretch for more than 10 pages.
Reelin’ In the Years
150 years in, the “bible of the book business” remains central to that business, and among many reasons for it, one stands above the rest: while many a publication has focused brilliantly on the importance of books and literature during the course of the last century and a half, none has so dedicatedly and robustly focused on the context surrounding the life cycle of a book and its content. When observed as a whole, the archives of Publishers Weekly show a record not just of what books were published, their quality, and whether they were behind or ahead of their time, but of the people and companies behind those books—their qualities, their timeliness. This magazine has long observed the art (reviews) and the artist (author profiles), but so too has it observed the product and those who make it.
A brief summary of those observations might be this: even as so much has changed—how books are made, how they are read, how sales are counted, and more—much has remained the same. Reader, a challenge: go through the PW archives and pick an issue at random. Chances are, the complaints about the business contained in its pages, whether they were printed in 1872 or 1972, will share much with the issues so many have with our industry today. There are too many books; the industry isn’t diverse enough; the publishers are behind the times; some new technology, marketing tool, or contract stipulation will be the death of the book as we know it. They’re all there. And we’re all here.
Many difficulties stem from living in such a connected time as ours, but there are advantages, too. Any book business professionals with PW subscriptions can log into our archives and take a look at the history of this business themselves. As they should, if they hope to change it for the better. “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” wrote Winston Churchill—himself channeling George Santayana before him, and (ostensibly) Edmund Burke before him.
So let us learn from history, and from the history of that history. The parallels and lessons are all there, waiting for us. All we have to do to get started? Read.
Sophia Stewart contributed reporting.
The Years and Their Books: A Century of Bestsellers
Occasionally, bestselling books show a remarkable connection to current events. Here's a sampling of some of the most fascinating juxtapositions between title and time since ‘PW’ started tracking bestsellers.