Jane Austen wrote and published during a half century in which hundreds of new bookshops and subscription and circulating libraries opened their doors; the volume of book production surged, and print penetrated ever more deeply into British society – to both the delight and horror of contemporaries.
The broader revolution in book production is dramatic: before 1700 up to 1,800 different printed titles were issued annually; by 1830 up to 6,000 – and this is simply a crude title count disregarding the huge increases in the edition sizes of certain types of publication, increases that escalated during the 1820s. Books, print and novels notably contributed to a new age of conspicuous consumption in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Book-trade entrepreneurs like Thomas Longman, John Murray, Charles Rivington, Thomas Cadell and George Robinson ranked with Hogarth, Boulton, Watt and Wedgwood as the promoters and beneficiaries of an evolving ‘consumer society’. It was not just that printed advertisements and other promotional publications advanced a great range of consumer goods (the subject of much lively social history), but books, magazines and prints themselves became prominent exemplars of the new decencies adorning the homes of propertied men and women.
During Austen's writing career, publishing remained, as it had since the late seventeenth century, dominated by questions of monopoly price-fixing, centralised production and control, technological constraints (and breakthroughs) and the efficiency of distribution networks. The British book production regime was characterised by the extreme variability of the size and price of the printed text, by multiple but modestly sized reprintings of successful titles (instead of ambitious single print runs) and by the manufacture of many non-commercial books where full costs were not always recovered from sale. Above all, the price of new and reprinted books had been modulated for most of the eighteenth century by the effective cartelisation of the trade in which booksellers’ protection of reprinting rights maintained monopoly prices in England (although not in Ireland and only ineffectively in Scotland, whose booksellers led the challenge against English claims to perpetual copyright).
The ranks of booksellers fundamentally divided between those who invested and dealt in the ownership of the copyright to publication, and those who either printed, sold or distributed books for the copyholders or who traded entirely outside the bounds of copyright materials.