British Library Treasures in full: Shakespeare in quarto
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Shakespeare in print  1  2  3

1. London book trade

The London book trade in Shakespeare’s time was small. There were no more than about 24 printing-houses, with which an estimated 200 to 300 people were directly involved. The trade was mainly based around the churchyard of old St Paul’s, but also spread westwards to Holborn and eastwards to Aldersgate. It was largely organised and regulated by the Stationers’ Company. This was the city livery company (a trade guild) to which most printers, publishers, and booksellers belonged.

All books had to be approved, or allowed, by the authorities before they could be printed. This was usually the responsibility of the bishop of London or the archbishop of Canterbury. There were fees for such approval, and the regulation was not always enforced. In addition, all books approved for printing had to be licensed by the Stationers’ Company before the work could be done. The licence, which cost 6 old pence, gave the owner of the copy (usually the publisher or the printer) the exclusive right to print the text. The owner often entered his copy in the register of the Stationers’ Company, as proof of his ownership.

There was no copyright, in the modern sense, in Shakespeare’s time. The author of a book had no rights in his work. The owner of a manuscript had no right to publish it. Only the Stationers’ Company licence gave the owner of the copy the right to publish a work. Once a stationer had a licence, he could publish the work without the knowledge or consent of the author.

The organisation of the London book trade in the late 16th and early 17th centuries differed in several ways from its modern counterpart.

  • Printers usually printed books for others. They owned the type and the printing presses, and they employed the men who did the printing. They did not usually sell books to the public.
  • Booksellers ran the shops that sold books to the public. They were not usually also printers. They were free to buy and sell any book, although some specialised in certain subjects. Booksellers named in imprints were those who sold books wholesale to the retailers who sold them to the public.
  • Publishers acquired the texts of books for printing. They paid for copies to be printed, and sold them wholesale. Most publishers were booksellers, although a few were also printers. There was no separate word for publisher in the modern sense.

These different roles can be seen in imprints. Printers are often indicated by the words ‘printed by’. Wholesale booksellers can be introduced by the words ‘sold by’. Publishers can be identified by the words ‘printed for’. However, the wording of imprints is not a reliable guide to the roles of those named in them.

Printing was done entirely by hand. First, the size and form of the book would be decided, usually based on the printing house’s style and other similar books. The copy, whether a manuscript or a previous edition, would be prepared with corrections and annotations to help with the printing. The composition or setting of the type was done letter by letter and line by line. The lines of type were assembled into pages, and the pages to be printed on one side of a sheet of paper were brought together into a forme. The pages were arranged in the forme so as to be in the right order when the other side of the sheet had been printed, and the whole sheet was folded into a single quire of the book.

The forme was placed on the printing press and the type was inked. The paper was prepared by thorough damping, so that it would take up the ink properly. Sheets were placed on the forme and printed one by one, first on one side and then (from a new forme) on the other in a process called perfecting. Hand press printing was subject to a variety of inconsistencies as well as errors, which would leave distinct traces in the final printed book.

After printing, the sheets were hung up to dry. All the sheets for an individual book were then gathered together and collated. The resulting copies were baled up for despatch to the booksellers. Books were generally sold unbound, for purchasers to have them bound as they wished, although booksellers often had a small number bound for sale at a higher price. Small thin books and pamphlets were normally sold with their quires stitched together but otherwise unbound.

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London book trade
Printed plays
Printing Shakespeare

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