The history of the Publishers Association


To mark our 125th anniversary Maria Vassilopoulos looks at the key moments in the history of the Publishers Association.

Frederick Macmillan, Charles James Longman, John Murray, Edward Marston. These four names became the founders of the Publishers Association in 1896. Three were eminent and successful publishers, recognisable today, and Marston’s firm Sampson Low ran trade magazine the Publishers’ Circular. From the first Council meeting of the Publishers Association, there were issues that had arisen in the British book trade over the previous hundred years that needed resolution. Booksellers were finding themselves priced out of the industry by discounters, authors wanted to improve their pay and rights, and there were challenges concerning copyright and piracy of content. Therefore, the Association’s first President, Longman, addressed these issues almost straight away and made the first objective of the Association to attempt to find solutions.

The inauguration of the Publishers Association marked the first time that publishing, as a singular profession, had an official trade association in the UK. As the Association grew in membership and publishers moved into the twentieth century, more items were added to the agenda. Today in 2021, publishing is a term that encompasses many different business models and audiences. Over the years, several sub-committees have been set up to create policy and initiatives around book pricing, distribution, working with bookshops, copyright law, censorship, and international book trade. It would simply be impossible to include all the Association’s activities and achievements here, but it is hoped that the following key moments will provide a snapshot of some of the Association’s work over the last 125 years.

London, The Publishers Association, MS, 1896.
London, The Publishers Association, MS,1896

The creation of the Net Book Agreement – 1900-1995(7)

Agree with it or not, the Net Book Agreement is an integral part of the history of the Publishers Association. Frederick Macmillan invented the ‘Net Book’ in 1890 and put the idea into practice after suggesting it in the Bookseller. A group of booksellers liked Macmillan’s idea and saw it as beneficial to bookselling. After founding the Booksellers’ Association in 1895, they lobbied publishers for a meeting to discuss adopting it industry-wide. After discussions with the Society of Authors and the Booksellers’ Association, the Publishers Association began enforcing the NBA from January 1900.

The Net Book Agreement’s first incarnation disallowed discounting of ‘net’ books by retailers, and it met early challenges from Book Clubs and booksellers who didn’t want to follow its rules. Although most of the industry outwardly accepted it, during the 1960s, the NBA had to be defended in the Restrictive Practices Court. The Association won the right to continue using it, and the Agreement remained in place until 1995, when it was abandoned by publishers and booksellers alike who started to see it as prohibitive to growth, especially in global markets.

The European Courts ruled it illegal in 1997, and free trade has been adopted ever since. It is fair to say that although the NBA came to an end in the 1990s, it afforded the Publishers Association 95 years of being in a position where they could effect change and innovate around the commercial side of the industry, which came in useful during times of change and conflict.

The First Big Copyright Change – 1911

At the first official meeting of the Publishers Association, C. J. Longman interjected on discussions about book prices to say that he believed the most important matter for publishers was copyright. There was already a law of sorts in place thanks to the Berne Convention, but there was a view that it didn’t go far enough to protect authors’ work. Therefore, the Association, alongside the Copyright Association, the Society of Authors, and other creative industries, created a sub-committee that put a case to the Board Of Trade in 1910.

It took the input of Frederick Macmillan, John Murray and C. J. Longman to iron out various issues before William Heinemann announced to the Publishers Association in his inaugural presidential address that the new copyright Bill had been agreed with the Government at the end of 1911. The Bill saw authors’ work finally protected for 50 years after their death and made the provision for students and teachers to use text for non-commercial purposes. The most significant change was that copyright would no longer need to be registered, and this meant that an author’s work was protected automatically rather than after it had been recorded. Legal depositaries at national libraries were set up for publishers to send gratis copies of each book that they published to and this practice is still kept today. The Bill also separated literary copyright and allowed books in English to be protected internationally.

There would be further changes to the Copyright Bill or Act, as it became known through the years, most notably in 1956 and 1988, but this was the first major shake-up of regulation that the Publishers Association had a part in effecting. 

The World Wars (1914-1946)

The Association was immediately involved in both World Wars alongside other trade bodies such as the National Book League and the British Council. The Association made a considerable contribution to keeping publishers in business, ranging from protecting staff from being taken for the War Effort, marking books as essential to the British population, and making sure there was enough paper for books to be printed. During WW1, the Association supported a scheme called ‘Reading for the Troops,’ in which books were sent to lending libraries stationed at military camps. In 1915 a fortnight of book buying, devised by the Association, was announced in the British press to encourage the public to go back to the high street and spend on literature, even if they were not readers. An export sub-committee was also set up to ensure that books could still be distributed and sold abroad.

Snippet from a 1944 article in the Times newspaper.
The Times, 1 April, 1944

As World War Two approached, the Publishers Association was involved in organising reliable export trade routes, and in 1939 the Association started to ask its members to check that there was nothing useful to the enemy in books being sent abroad. There was much for the Association to deal with on the Home Front during the war. After a bombing raid on London on 29 December 1940 obliterated Paternoster Row in the City of London and many publishers’ offices, the Council discussed putting the War Risks Insurance Act in place to insure stock. They lost their offices in Stationer’s Hall during that raid, but the Bookseller’s Association took them in.

The Paper Control Committee formed by the Association constantly came up against the Ministry of Supply regarding the quantity of paper publishers were allowed to use as they felt publishers wasted paper. In response, they devised the War Economy Standard branding for books and tasked the National Book Council with publicising this to show that publishers were operating under Government guidelines. The Bookseller marked the end of paper rations on 6 March 1949 as a date that should be remembered in book trade history because so much work had gone into convincing the Government that books were not a waste of the country’s resources. 

Another noteworthy achievement during the war occurred when president of the Association Geoffrey Faber stopped Purchase Tax being applied to books by the Government. In a presentation to Ministry officials, he convinced them that books were essential to the war effort and vital morale boosters. Faber announced his victory at a packed and relieved special general Publishers Association meeting at Stationer’s Hall in 1940.  

John Brophy, Britain Needs Books (London: National Book Council, 1941)
John Brophy, Britain Needs Books, (London: National Book Council, 1941)

The Booker Prize -1969

The Booker Prize is one of the most well-known and, on occasion, controversial book prizes, and the Publishers Association was involved in its early years. Inspired by the French Prix Goncourt, Tom Maschler, who worked for Jonathan Cape, talked to the Society of Young Publishers (SYP) about starting a prize in the 1960s, and someone there said that he should find a sponsor. Cape had relations with The Booker Brothers wholesale company and sold a lot of Ian Fleming books through them, so Tom thought they might want to invest in the prize. The result was the formation of the Booker Prize, which was sponsored from its early days by the Association, who gave it expert guidance and industry connections.  The prize came when the publishing industry had been criticised for a slow and predictable fiction market and gave some credibility back to the sector.

The first winner of the £5,000 prize money was P. H. Newby with his 18th book Something to Ask For.  Described as a ‘considerable novel,’ it was up against The Public Image, by Muriel Spark, The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch, Figures in a Landscape by Barry England, Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosely, and From Scenes like These by Gordon M. Williams. Dame Rebecca West presented the trophy at a ceremony held at Draper’s Hall on 22 April 1969. The National Book League took over from the Association in 1970, and the Booker has continued to grow to become one of the most revered and spoken about book prizes in history.

World Book Day logo

World Book Day – 1990s

Booksellers in Barcelona first came up with the idea of World Book Day and sent the BA a bouquet of roses to celebrate in 1996. After a meeting of the Association, where the gift was discussed, it was suggested that the British book trade should mark the day that was already popular in Europe with a £1 book token scheme for every school child. Dillon’s, Books Etc., Waterstones, Sussex Stationers, Blackwell’s, W. H. Smith, and the independent booksellers all supported the idea, and the Booksellers’ Association took the idea to the Publishers’ Association. It was Gail Rebuck who proposed publishing the unique £1 books, which still go on sale each year. 

The trade associations, and BBC came together to create and publicise the first World Book Day on 23rd April 1997. One thousand participating bookshops gave away 100,000 discount vouchers ranging from 50p to £5.00 to encourage more new readers in the first year. Education Secretary David Blunkett, whose Government department was also in support, announced that 1.1 million children between the ages of four and eighteen would receive a £1 book voucher at 33,000 schools across the UK. Rebuck said in the Guardian that:

“‘The voucher breaks new ground. It promises to be a landmark event, and we’d like people everywhere to get involved, whether they are avid readers or haven’t picked up a book in years. ‘It is important to get reading back on the agenda – to change the climate so that young people recognise it as fun. With so much competition from video, TV and computers, books have to fight for attention.’” 

A year later, in 1998, the Times remarked that “only a recluse will be unaware that today is World Book Day,” which shows how quickly it caught on. Tony Blair even joined in that year by telling the nation that his favourite book was Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. 

The Publishers Association and the Booksellers Association incorporated World Book Day as a charity in its own right in 1999. World Book Day changes lives through a love of books and shared reading. Its mission is to promote reading for pleasure, offering every child and young person the opportunity to have a book of their own.

The First Publishing Apprenticeship

The Publishers Association has been engaged in much work over the last decade to widen the recruitment pool of publishing and has run various initiatives over the years. The Publishing Assistant Apprenticeship is the first of its kind and should be celebrated as a highlight of 125 years of the Association.

The Association worked with members to pilot and launch the inaugural programme. This scheme helps people get their first experience in the industry while being paid and gaining a qualification. The first cohort of apprentices have recently graduated with the skills they need to work in the industry, and they have learnt how books, digital products, and journals are edited, produced, marketed, and sold. Many have gone on to full time roles. Although this is a more recent development, it is indicative of the Publishers Association’s responsibility to their members, not just to input into wider policy making but also to cater to what will make publishing stronger, with a more diverse and future-proof workforce.

Publishing Assistant Apprentices
The first cohort of apprentices with Publishers Association and LDN Apprenticeships staff

Maria Vassilopoulos is a book trade historian and Sales and Marketing Manager for British Library Publishing.