1.5 Easy to get but likely to mislead: title statistics. A plea for paper consumption statistics.

Last positing in this thread: Visual Literary History (4)

Title counts are relatively easy to get. The new national catalogues of books, the ESTC, the STCN, the VD16, VD17 — they all offer options to get the numbers of titles that have been attributed to individual publication years.

A title is in these cases any bibliographical entry and often: any entry of variant within an edition. A book of 400 pages, that was printed in an edition of a thousand copies will create such an entry. A two page pamphlet of 200 copies distributed in gratis copies will be just such an entry. A newspaper that appeared in one thousand copies per day over a period of 150 years will be just one single title, a journal of 12 monthly issues per year with a market presence of 20 years will be just another title.

Title counts can be misleading and have been used in order to mislead.

Back in 1945 the biggest publisher of books for the German war fronts, Bertelsmann, faced the problem to hide its preceding work. Applying for a postwar license the provincial publishing house with a 19th-century record in protestant publishing and in the production of school books found itself at the moral cross roads. It was unwise to tell the Allied authorities what one had printed in massive editions for the past twelve years: nationalistic novels, books of nationalistic glory that celebrated first world heroes, books of the new regime, books that reported from all the World War II fighting zones of the early 1940s…

The option of choice to make a good impression on the authorities was the title count. Any leaflet that was distributed in the parishes became a title. Short theological tracts (which Bertelsmann one had continued to print in the Nazi years) were individual titles. One could split serial productions in order to turn them into as many titles as possible, and one could play the reverse game with those books that had run into large editions of 400.000 to 800.000 copies. Any such book was just one title.

By counting titles Bertelsmann could prove that it had been predominantly a religious publisher. One had, of course also published some books the regime was likely to support, but those made up very few titles against the backdrop of the vast theological production.

Working for the Historical Commission that had been established in 1999 in order to revaluate Bertelsmann’s post war fame as a persecuted religious publishing house it took me a while to arrive at better statistics. The company’s archive comprised a series of “Herstellungslisten” — sheets that were produced every year in order to control the production costs. I identified the company’s fields of production according to pre-1945 segmentations and began work on a graph that basically showed how much money the company had invested in the material production in each segment.

The graph a team of students eventually produced gave us insight into the quantities of books that left the printing machines. Bertelsmann invested after 1935 in war books, and it had to expand its printing facilities in order to handle the exploding production in this field:


A new line of production arrived with the war: books one would sell to the units at the front (basically cheap novels to entertain the soldiers, especially those in field hospitals that bought complete libraries from Bertelsmann).

The statistics we produced had an advantage I had not thought of when I started the computation. Paper was, as I had to realize, the central asset publishers required in order to remain on the market after 1939. Army units received official permissions — paper cheques — that allowed and entitled them to consume paper, i.e. to order books in tons of paper at publishers of their choice. Publishers that had paper in stock were at an advantage in this trade: they could sell on short notice, and that was an advantage in a trade regulated by paper-consumption-permission in three-month rhythm, in which one had to consume quickly in order to be granted a similar contingent for the upcoming season. Publishers who knew how to get paper on the European markets were at an advantage. Army units that invaded countries acquired these paper quantities and spread the information of their whereabouts (if one bribed them). Bertelsmann bribed readily and received paper contingents and allowances to consume this paper. The eventual closure of the company had nothing to do with its protestant past but with the legal case that brought Bertelmann’s managers into prison. A special court decided in Berlin in 1944 over the fate of the managers, a central salesman and the army officials that had accepted bribes and that had practically sold the permissions to consume paper. (See for more on this the commission’s report published in 2002: Bertelsmann im Dritten Reich. edited by Saul Friedländer, Norbert Frei, Trutz Rendtorff, and Reinhard Wittmann, Munich: Bertelsmann, 2002.)

The Third Reich and the Early Modern period

When it comes to paper the Third Reich and the Early Modern period have strangely much in common. Paper was the precious asset here and there. Early modern printers would set and reset a book for several print runs of a thousand copies rather than print 6000 copies in one single print run. The type setting was, so it seems, comparatively cheap. One had to print relatively small editions in order to meet the demand as precisely as possible. Customers would, in any case rather buy a sixth edition of a book than its first. The latter would have the fresher publishing date and it would show how successful the title was.

Could we get paper consumption statistics for the early modern period? Well, maybe we could get approximate estimates. If publishers printed standard editions of 500 to 1000 copies at a certain period, let us say around 1700, we can work with average editions (like 750 copies) and use the information we have to compute how many sheets have gone into any edition we know of. We know the formats and the total page numbers of these books. We can usually state how many sheets the individual book consisted of and we can in that case state how many sheets the entire edition might have cost (based on average editions of course).

Why would knowledge about how many sheets went into what productions be so interesting? Because they would enable us to say that the number of sheets was essentially reading time. How much reading time went into sermons? How much went into novels, how much into news papers, how much into journals? If we knew, we could speak with greater precision about the impact of publications and about market trends.


One comment

  1. Pingback: 4: The English market of books: title statistics and a comparison with German data | critical threads

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