From Raymond Howard Shove, Cheap Book Production in The United States, 1870 To 1891.
Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Library, 1937, p87-94.

Few men have been more heartily disliked for their publishing activities by American publishers and booksellers than was John B. Alden, leader of the "Literary Revolution," who sought to provide good literature for the masses at the lowest possible price, and actually sold it to them at prices below the cost of production. A native of Iowa, Alden came to New York from Chicago, and with some fifty second-hand books and a capital of seventy dollars, he established in 1874 the American Book Exchange, so-called because of Alden’s plan to exchange books with his customers, charging ten cents for each volume sold or exchanged. A few years later, noticing the success of the paper-covered Seaside, Franklin Square, and other cheap quarto “libraries," and at the same time realizing that most people would prefer to have their books in bound form and in a handier size, he decided that if such books were manufactured to be sold at a low enough price, the market for them would be practically unlimited. He contended that the publishing business was in the hands of a group of monopolists who cheated the public at every turn, and decided that he would publish good literature at the really low price at which it should and could be published.

In order to obtain the capital for such an enterprise he formed a stock company and sold shares in it. He began his publishing activities in January 1879 with the Acme Edition of standard authors, convenient sized volumes bound in cloth. The series contained the works of such authors as Shakespeare, Macaulay and Dickens, and sold at the unprecedented low price of fifty cents a volume. He also published the Acme Library of Standard Biography, at forty cents a volume, including many of the English Men of Letter Series. Alden’s publications showed signs of hurried proofreading, as did most of the cheap publications of the time, and the paper was rather poor, but they were all that could be asked for from the standpoint of cheapness. Alden antagonized the bookseller by announcing that he would sell only direct to the consumer, thus cutting out the middleman's profit. Not many months had gone by, however, before he decided that the booksellers would be of use to him, and he offered his books to them at a twenty per cent discount. It would seem that with so small a chance for profit the bookseller would be unable to handle such books. During this period, however, it was customary for the publisher to place an exaggerated list price on his books in order to allow the bookseller a liberal discount. The bookseller in turn commonly allowed his customers discounts ranging from ten to twenty-five per cent from those prices.

Alden made no provision for this double discount, so that although his books were exceedingly low in price, they seemed to be even lower in comparison with those of other publishers. As a matter of fact, even with this small discount, he actually sold his books at less than it cost him to produce them. He placed his chances for success on the supposedly simple idea of mass production. For example, when he was about to print Young’s Concordance, he explained that it would cost ten thousand dollars to set the type for it. If only one thousand copies were printed, the type-setting cost for each copy would be ten dollars. If one hundred thousand copies were printed, the cost for each volume would be only ten cents. [82]

Alden did not confine himself to the Acme and the somewhat higher priced Aldus editions of standard works. In the early part of 1880 he published the Library of Universal Knowledge, a verbatim reprint of Chamber's Encyclopedia with a considerable amount of American additions. [83] In his advertisements he stated that it was "An Encyclopaedia in 20 viols., over 16,000 pages; 10 per cent more matter than any Encyclopaedia ever before published in this country, and sold, handsomely and well bound in cloth, for $10.00... An enterprise so extraordinary that its success, beyond all precedent in book publishing, may be fairly claimed to inaugurate a Literary Revolution.” [84] Some forty years earlier Park Benjamin had boasted that he was bringing about a “revolution” in the publishing business with his shilling (12 ½ cent) “books for the million." [86] Alden also liked the idea of a revolution, and in his advertising termed his publishing business a "Literary Revolution,” by which name it came to be widely known.

On April 7, 1880, the Publishers’ Weekly announced that it had refused an advertisement from Alden’s firm, "because it conveyed false impressions, favorable only to the ‘Revolution,’" and a fifty-six page advertising contract had thus been lost. [86] The editors of the Weekly stated that they had always been in favor of cheap books, but not books on which the publisher lost money. A few months later Alden declined to send his catalog for the Publishers’ Trade List Annual because the Weekly had refused his advertisements.

In addition to his cloth-bound books Alden published two or three hundred small sized "Revolution Pamphlets.” Following his custom of comparing the prices of his publications with those of other publishers, he pointed out that whereas Macaulay's Frederick the Great was being published at a dollar and twenty-five cents, the Revolution edition was sold for only three cents. Several of Shakespeare’s plays were published separately in neat little paper covered volumes of from sixty to seventy pages at the almost unbelieveable price of three cents each.

In the summer of 1880 Alden stated that during the year and a half he had been in business he had published a hundred and twenty separate bound volumes, some two thousand tons of good literature, and in doing so had employed five hundred men and women regularly. [87] Hot cakes, said Alden, could not begin to rival the swiftness with which the Acme editions were selling. [88] In addition to the bound volumes he boasted that he was manufacturing an average of ten thousand "Revolution Pamphlets” a day, and was still much behind the orders; that he had ordered ten thousand dollars worth of new machinery is order to increase his output. [89]

While he was supposedly doing such a prosperous business he became anxious that more people should have a chance to share in his good fortune. He therefore decided to distribute ten thousand shares of additional stock at ten dollars a share. Advertisements telling the details of this plan were published in several of the leading magazines, especially in the religious journals, in which it was intimated that the investor's money would be doubled within a year's time. The following interesting statistics were included to show how easily money was being made in the publishing business. It is the history of single book, a work of eight hundred and twenty-eight pages, brevier type, about sixteen hundred ems to the page.

"For making the electrotype plates ........................................ $882.16
26,000 copies Acme edition, cost for paper
and printing at 12 cents ...................................................... $3,120.00
Binding of same in cloth, at 9 cents .................................... $2,340,00
8000 copies Aldus edition, printed, cost for
paper & printing at 17 cents .............................................. $1,360.00
Binding of the same in half russia, gilt top, at 20 cents ..........$1,600.00
Total cost of 34,000 copies ............................................... $9,302.16
26,000 Acme edition, estimating all sold at greatest
club rate of discount, 50 cents each, less 15 per cent ........ $11,050.00
8,000 Aldus edition, ditto, at $1 ......................................... $6,800.00
Total receipts for 34,000 copies ................................. …. $17.850.00
Gross profits In one year from an investment of $882.16 .... $8,548.00

‘A Dutchman’s 10 per cent’ profit. Do you think we can afford it?" [90]

It will be noticed that no provision was made for payment to authors. Alden stated on several occasions that he did not favor the royalty system, that he did favor an international copyright and that the Revolution would force the other publishers to get behind a movement for international copyright. When English authors asked him for payment for their books, he told them that the increased circulation he was giving their works should be payment enough, and would help the author’s sales when copyright did come. [91] At all events, Alden did not pay royalties on the books he published, though as a matter of fact many of them were standards on which none of the American publishers paid royalties. He also neglected to include his advertising costs, which were large, amounting in 1880 to more than twenty per cent of his gross cash receipts. [92]

His arguments were nevertheless convincing to quite a number of people, and the fact that his list contained the very best books further influenced large numbers of clergymen and a "good many booksellers" to become stockholders. [93] The very low price of paper in 1879 favored Alden’s business, but early in 1880 prices advanced sharply, working a hardship on all the cheap book publishers. [94] Cheap paper would not have saved the "Revolution,” however, for even in 1879 it was generally agreed among publishers that Alden was selling his books at less than the cost of production. The Publishers’ Weekly had promised to publish from time to time an account of the development of this Literary Revolution, but noted in 1881 that it had entered upon a period of such "terrific slaughter" that it seemed more a subject for the Police Gazette than for a "sober trade journal." The vast sale for the Alden publications did not materialize, and this was fatal to his enterprise. On December 3, 1881, it was reported that a receiver had been appointed for the "Revolution," which had been carried for several months by a group of creditors. Following upon the bankruptcy large quantities of Alden's publications were dumped upon the market.

The failure of Alden's Revolution did not kill his desire to provide good literature to the people at low prices, and in 1882 he was still in the publishing business, at the head of the Useful Knowledge Company. In 1883 he was publishing the Elzevir Library, which included many of the little paper books he had formerly published. The Elzevir Library ranged in price from two cents for Rip Van Winkle, to fifteen cents for Bacon’s Essays--Complete. Elzevir was a favorite name of Alden's. He published an Elzevir Edition of standards, and several years later, in 1893, while still organizing new companies, he established the Elzevir Publishing Company.

By 1885 Alden was again making his presence felt in the cheap book business. In that year the Boston Beacon stated that, "Whatever may be Mr. Alden's facilities for printing and selling books, he publishes very good books and magazines much cheaper than does anybody else, and his Ruskin is a triumph of cheap bookmaking. [95] In July the Toronto Week said that "Mr. Alden is certainly a well-abused man, and it is not easy to see where he makes a profit, but he has unquestionably placed much good literature within the reach of persons with limited means.” [96] By this time to was in better standing with the booktrade. He sold his books at retail at a net price, and when they were ordered by mail he added twenty per cent. He had increased his discounts to dealers to one-third. Alden had from the beginning insisted that the only right way to publish books was at a net price.

In l886 it was noticed that Alden’s publications were greatly improved in style, and that his catalogs were flooding the country. In his 1888 catalog, listing a fifteen volume set of Dickens under the caption "The Dickens you say," he gives a good illustration of how the intense rivalry among publishers of cheap twelvemos had caused their price to be lowered. "Competition has become so sharp in certain lines that it no longer pays to manufacture books for the absurd prices at which they sell. This is notably the case with the works of Charles Dickens. So I cease to manufacture, and have bought up a large lot of Dickens’ Works which I can sell and make a little profit on at $4.50 a set.” [98]

In 1889 when the Lovell Combination was being suggested for the purpose of raising prices and cutting down competition, Alden refused to have anything to do with it, saying, "I don’t believe in any such trust... I am carrying on a trust now myself. I am a trustee to provide my patrons with cheap books. That’s what I have agreed to do. Such a trust as this proposed would have a tendency to raise the price of books." [99] Nevertheless, when the Combination was organized the following year Alden turned over to it many of his publications.

Alden continued to publish good books at low prices for several years, but never again did he cause such a furor in the publishing world as he had in 1879 and 1880.

Considering the publishing career of Alden, it would seem that if any one of the cheap book publishers was sincere in his professed desire to give the people good books at very low prices, certainly John B. Alden was that one.


82. Publishers' Weekly, 17:515-16 (1880).
83. This encyclopedia was sold to Dodd, Mead & Co., in 1884, and after extensive revision was brought out by that firm as the International Encyclopedia, now the New International Encyclopedia.
84. American Bookseller, 9:143 (1880).
85. New World, 4:242 (1842).
86. Publisher’s Weekly, 18:157 (1880).
87. American Book Collector, 7:l38 (1935).
88. American Bookseller, 9:142 (1880), Adv.
89. Publishers' Weekly, 18:185 (1880).
90. Publishers’ Weekly, 19:390-91 (1881).
91. Ibid., 27:334 (1885).
92. Ibid., 19:390-91 (1881).
93. Ibid., 22:137 (1882).
94. Ibid., 17:195-96 (1880).
95. Publishers' Weekly, 27:582 (1885), Adv.
96. Ibid., 28:34 (1885).
97. Publishers’ Weekly, 29:278 (1886).
98. Alden catalog, 1888, p4.
99. New York Herald, July 7, 1889, p21.


Last revised: 21 June 2011