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A brief history of the publishing industry

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Bookselling over the years

Early in history, many book printers also sold their books at their printing presses. Then stores dedicated solely to the selling of books from multiple presses opened. Bookstores had control over which books they carried and which titles they wanted to market. Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the oldest bookstore in the U.S., opened its doors in 1745 and continues operation today. 

In 1926, copywriter and mail-order expert Harry Scherman (along with two partners) wanted to combine his knowledge of marketing and love of literature and try a new way to sell books. The Book of the Month Club (BOMC) was born in April of that year when 4,750 members were sent the first club selection. By the end of that first year, membership exploded to more than 46,000. In the early years, books were offered at full price with additional shipping fees. Eventually, BOMC worked with publishers to provide discounts on selected books to its members. The club’s popularity grew, and by the 1950s it was selling nearly 5 million books each year. During the early 1990s, when chain bookstores came into the market with even larger discounts, the company struggled, and it officially ceased operations in 2014. However, the company soon re-launched again in late 2015 under new management and with new ideas.


The arrival of the big bookstore chains

In 1971, the first Borders opened its doors in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and its owners began opening other stores. The first Borders “superstore” opened in 1985 and included an in-store coffee shop and a music section. This model became the prototype for other bookstores like Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton Bookseller, and Waldenbooks. Discounts were high – a boon for customers but a bit of a challenge for publishers, which now had to rely more heavily on their bestselling authors to make a profit. Toward the end of its 40-year run, with over 500 stores around the country, Borders struggled to stay in the market. The digital age had hit, changing how customers shopped, and many superstores did not fully realize the impact of the rise of digital products like eBooks and digital music downloads until it was too late. Customers browsed to find products at superstores, only to buy what they found on Amazon for a steeper discount. B. Dalton closed their stores in 2010 and Borders and Waldenbooks soon followed in 2011, leaving Barnes & Noble as the last chain standing, though struggling. After a series of store closures and changes in management, the store was sold to a British hedge fund in mid-2019 and is now helmed by CEO James Daunt, an Englishman who successfully revived Waterstones, a similar bookstore chain in the U.K.