THE LOVELL "COMBINATION"

From Raymond Howard Shove, Cheap Book Production in The United States, 1870 To 1891. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Library, 1937, p98-105.

From year to year in the 1880s competition among the cheap book publishers had been growing more savage and destructive, so that while some of them had formerly made a fair profit on the cheap paper covered libraries and on the cheap cloth-bound twelvemos, profits had dwindled to no profit at all, “and finally to absolute and irredeemable loss." [109] The Publisher's Weekly in the early part of 1890 told of lines of cloth-bound twelvemos of about three hundred pages each, fairly well printed and some with illustrations, "with black and gilt cover designs, the volumes averaging in weight a pound avoirdupois, selling in lots of one hundred copies or more, assorted if desired, at fifteen cents the volume, less a discount for cash; selling in lots of thousands, according to quantity, for anything the party chose to offer; selling so low that the manufacturer even admitted it would make him blush to say how little he received." [110]

J.S. Ogilvie, one of the cheap book publishers, said in 1889, that "The reprinting business could not be in a worse plight than it is. Why, our customers have latterly got into the habit of stating their own price, not asking ours. I get letters in every mail saying the writer will give so much for so many books. And as the price named is generally below cost I tear the letters up. There is substantially no profit in the business. I am doing more and more of a copyright business myself.” [111]

John W. Lovell had in 1888 purchased the popular Munro Library in an attempt to narrow the field of competition. Other cheap series soon sprang up to take the place of the Munro Library, making the rivalry more intense, with consequent losses. The resulting lowered prices naturally led to a deterioration in quality of manufacture. As Lovell himself pointed out, many of the cheap books were printed on paper which would be spurned by a penny newspaper. Said he, "It is notorious that such badly made books have never appeared elsewhere.” [112]

In order to eliminate competition which had resulted in non-profitable price-cutting, Lovell conceived the idea of a combination of the publishers of cheap books. It will be remembered that in the latter part of the 1870s, when he had gained notoriety with pirated reprints, Lovell had spoken highly of the royalty system because it was conducive to competition and low prices. He later changed his mind about the advantages of unlimited competition, saying in 1889 that, "Competition hereafter can have only one result--the cheapening of prices and manufacture, with a return to the demoralization that has ruled during the past two or three years." [113]

In June 1889, Lovell was interviewed by a New York Herald reporter concerning a proposed "book trust." Lovell stated that the cheap book publishers, or reprinters, were not making any money and were hoping for either an international copyright or a book trust. He mentioned the following firms as being those who would join such a trust; J.W. Lovell, Estes & Lauriat, Porter & Coates, Worthington Company, Trow Book Printing and Binding Company, J.B. Alden, J.S. Ogilvie, Hurst & Company, Laird & Lee, George Munro, American News Company, Pollard & Moss, and Ivers & Company. In addition to the above, Lovell said there were probably half a dozen others whose names he could not recall at the time. The reporter noticed that he had not named Harpers or Appletons. Lovell replied, "No. They would not join the trust unless they had to. But when the trust is formed, as it will be within the year, they may wish to come in. They can't live outside." [114]

Some of the cheap book publishers were in favor of the proposed book combination. Mr. Richard Worthington in voicing his approval said, "You see we've all got a lot of dead property on our hands in these plates. This concern alone has $300,000 worth. As long as the present demoralized condition of things exist, growing out of reckless competition, this property is valueless. The different reprinting houses own several million of it... Any change would be for the better.” [115]

Lovell's plan did not proceed rapidly, several of the firms being dubious of the success of such a pooling of interests. In February 1990, the Publishers' Weekly remarked that the proposed combine had "ended in talk without accomplishing more than a coalition of interests between the Lovells and George Munro." [116] By this arrangement Lovell's Library ceased to exist, its place being taken by the Seaside Library, which was to be circulated only by the American News Company. Lovell announced that discounts to the trade would be thirty per cent, making the ten cent numbers seven cents, twenty cent numbers fourteen cents, and the thirty cent numbers twenty-one cents.

What Lovell had suggested in 1889 was little more than an agreement among the publishers as to rates of discount. [117] When the other publishers refused to come in on his scheme he resolved on a much more daring enterprise. This was nothing less than undertaking to buy or rent the book plates of all the available competing reprints. It was a publishing venture which for sheer audacity had perhaps never before been witnessed anywhere. [118] The acquisition of the Seaside Library was his first major step in fulfilling this ambition to control the entire output of cheap books in the United States. By March 1890, he had made negotiations with several other firms, and the Publishers' Weekly was sufficiently impressed to remark, "Whatever its outcome and final result, the evolution of the scheme to its present status gives Mr. Lovell a strong position in the trade, and makes him at once an important figure in trade history, and his persistency and generalship deserve hearty recognition." [119]

In a circular sent out to the trade on March 27, 1890, Lovell pointed out that books are peculiarly an article of merchandise, the sale of which can be increased by enlarging the dealer's stock, but that price-cutting must be abolished before dealers could safely carry a sufficiently large stock. He proposed to take over the immense task of eliminating price-cutting. This was to be effected in part by requiring all jobbers to sell at the publisher's prices, while the publishers were to give discounts to the trade only. He promised that retail dealers who cooperated in maintaining prices would be protected against cheaper editions. He indicated that there would be a "slight advance" in prices in order that more care might be given to book manufacturing.

In March 1890, Lovell announced that his organization controlled more than one-half of the yearly output of cloth-bound books handled by the trade, aside from school books, and over three-fourths of the paper-covered books. [120] He realized that in order to carry out his plan of dominating the cheap book business, he would need more capital. With the recently organized American Book Company furnishing the suggestion, Lovell made arrangements for a new company to provide the necessary capital. In June 1890, the organization of this company was completed under the name of the United States Book Company, with an announced capital of three and a half million dollars. The Trow Printing Company, controlling a large number of plates of the cheap book publishers, was heavily involved in the new concern. As a matter of fact, it is quite possible that the Trow company was influential in planning the entire scheme from the beginning. [121] The board of directors of the new concern was made up of Horace H. Thurber, Samuel Thomas, Chester W. Chapin, Edward Lange, and John W. Lovell of New York; M.A. Donohue of Chicago; J.D. Safford of Springfield, Mass.; J.A. Taylor of Plainfield, N.J.; and Erastus Wiman. Lovell was the manager of the company.

The United States Book Company at the time of its organization controlled, according to report, the competing editions of standard low priced sets, twelvemos, and “poets," of Hurst & Company, Worthington Company, W.L. Allison, Alden Book Company, Pollard & Moss, Frank F. Lovell, and G.W. Dillingham, all of New York; the Aldine Book Company, Ester & Lauriat, and DeWolfe, Fiske & Company of Boston; J.B. Lyon of Albany; Donohue, Henneberry & Company, and Belford, Clarke & Company of Chicago; and J.B. Lippincott of Philadelphia. It also controlled the paper-covered series of George Munro, Norman L. Munro, and the National Publishing Company. [122] The company either absorbed these firms altogether or bought out their interests in the plates of such books. In addition, arrangements had been made with Dodd, Mead & Company, the Empire Publishing Company, and Frank A. Munsey to stop publishing certain lines of non-copyright books for a certain length of time. [123] A short time later the plates and stock of J.S. Ogilvie were acquired, comprising some three hundred sets of "standard books," at a reported price of two hundred thousand dollars. [124] Among those companies remaining "free" were the American News Company, Porter & Coates, T.B. Peterson & Brothers, Street & Smith, Robert Bonner's Sons, and Ivers & Company. [125]

The general feeling in the book trade was that this combination of publishers of cheap books was “one of the best things that has happened to the book trade in years--provided the combination does as fairly as it talks and can hold out long enough.” [126] Outside of the book trade it did not meet with such general approval; the Publishers' Weekly reported that, “A great lament has gone up here and there in the public press since the realization of the Lovell Combination, and many a Sir Toby is standing about queruously asking, ‘Shall there be no more cakes and ale, now that these rapacious publishers have become virtuous?'”[127]

In September 1890, the United States Book Company announced that the Seaside Library, Lovell's Library, and the Munro Library were gradually being merged into one, the Seaside, which at the time contained over fifteen hundred volumes. [128]

The physical make-up of the books controlled by the United States Book Company, with a slight increase in price, showed a definite improvement in quality. Lovell was very aggressive in entering the English market and buying advance sheets of new books for his firm. He outbid many of the older houses, and succeeded in getting quite a number of authors away from them. Harpers, who had published the novels of James Payn for thirty or forty years, sent him their usual check for the Burnt Million, which the author returned saying he had already made arrangements with Lovell. Harpers nevertheless went ahead and published the book. The Publishers' Weekly remarked that “it would seem to be more just and dignified on the part of such eminent houses as those of Messrs. Harper and Holt to recognize ‘authorizations' so far as they go, rather than to continue the game of ‘tit for tat!'”[129]

In looking back over the happenings in the book trade in 1890, the American Bookseller said that the two most important events were the formation of the American Book Company, by the leading school book publishers, and the United States Book Company “which now controls the majority of the ‘Libraries.' In both cases ruinous competition has diminished, and we notice a gradual improvement in both the literary and material quality of these works.'” [130] The United States Book Company was not destined for the success which came to the American Book Company, however, and in 1893 ended in bankruptcy. The previous year, since it had been found impracticable to carry on the business of the different types of books from one center, several subsidiary companies had been formed, the Empire Book Company, Hovenden Company, Lovell, Coryell & Company, International Book Company, Seaside Publishing Company, and Lovell, Gestefeld & Company. At the time of the failure of the United States Book Company the Publishers' Weekly made the following comment,

"Since its organization the business is reported to have gone on fairly well, the ambition of its manager appearing to be the only drawback. He seems to have been continually reaching out for more, and so became unable to do justice to the material he already had in hand, thereby congesting the plant and in many cases rendering it inoperative. As an instance of his greed may be cited the fact that he had actually made arrangements with authors, at no insignificant prices, for upwards of two hundred new novels in one year, a number which might have satisfied all our publishing houses put together. Besides this his business methods were so unmethodical and unsatisfactory to some of the members of the company that it was only a question of time when the break would come. There was no accusation of criminal intent in conducting his business affairs as was reported, but he is censured in no measured terms for alleged mismanagement and carelessness.” [131]

This business of the United States Book Company did not pass at once out of the publishing world, but was carried on for several years by the creditors of the company, first as the American Publishers' Corporation, and finally as the Publishers' Plate Renting Company. The latter organization, according to report, was the first one of the "Combination" which had made a living for its proprietors. [132] Of the several divisions of the United States Book Company, Lovell, Coryell & Company continued in business the longest, its plates and stock being disposed of in January 1904. Thus was brought to a final end one of the most astonishing publishing undertakings which this country has witnessed.

Following the failure of the United States Book Company in 1893 John W. Lovell devoted himself to real estate. [133] He died in 1932.

NOTES:

109. Publishers' Weekly, 37:274-75 (1890).
110. Ibid.
111. New York Herald, July 7, 1889, p21.
112. Publishers' Weekly, 37:460-61 (1890).
113. Ibid.
114. New York Herald, June 25, 1585, p22.
115. Ibid., July 7, 1589, p21.
116. Publishers' Weekly, 37:259--300 (1890).
117. New York Herald, June 30, 1889, p13.
118. Publishers' Weekly, 65:107 (1904).
119. Ibid., 37:458 (1890).
120. Ibid, 37:460 (1690).
121. Ibid., p274-75.
122. Ibid., 37:460 (1890).
123. Ibid.
124. American Bookseller, 28:139 (1890).
125. Publishers' Weekly, 57:557 (1890).
126. Ibid., p. 508.
127. Ibid., p. 557.
128. Ibid., 58:460 (1890).
129. Ibid., 38:32 (1890).
130. American Bookseller, 29:85 (1891).
131. Publishers' Weekly, 43:269-71 (1893).
132. Ibid., 65:107 (1904).
133. New York Times, April 22, 1932, p17.

Last revised: 28 October 2010