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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa


The simplest way to distribute a printed work is for an author to deliver copies of his or her own work directly to the reader. This method has always been the favoured or desperate last resort of some. (Examples of self publishing, which may include distribution, are to be found elsewhere in this book.) However, even before the invention of printing, the chain of textual transmission linking author and reader was lengthened by the bringing in of intermediaries. In the early days of printing the tasks of production and distribution could still be managed by one person not the author, typically the master printer, who would commission the author, employ the production workers, and oversee distribution, wholesale and retail. In the small colonial societies of 19th-century New Zealand this comparative lack of specialisation remained operative long after it had gone out in metropolitan centres overseas. However, by the early years of the 20th century the divisions of function which are now the commercial norm were becoming distinct, in line with practice in larger economies overseas.

Under the broad heading of distribution are considered three topics, large in themselves: bookselling, libraries, and book buying and book collecting. Space allotted to these reflects not so much their importance as the amount and quality of scholarly work devoted to them: bookselling and book buying in particular have been relatively little studied.

Bookselling, the trade concerned with the distribution of printed works, is likewise conveniently considered under three heads. First comes a survey of patterns of historical change. For instance, the small mixed business of the mid 19th century had a century later evolved into the specialist bookshop or been overtaken by the spread of national chains. Secondly, the people in the trade are remembered, some for their exceptional drive or devotion to the printed word. Finally, trade regulation in its various aspects—import licensing for one—is dealt with. Booksellers have to cope more than many other sellers of goods with social and political as well as economic pressures, notoriously those to do with censorship.

Libraries of many kinds obviously have a distinct function among the processes of dissemination. The ratepayer-funded public libraries, for instance, by collecting and making available a range of printed and other materials to all members of their communities, at little or no charge to individual users, serve cultural rather than strictly commercial values. These institutions were for the most part 20th-century creations. Their 19th-century forerunners were the Athenaeums and Mechanics' Institutes, which have a fascinating history of their own.

Book buyers and book collectors are the most obvious recipients of print. However, it should not be forgotten that our letterboxes are witness to a never-ending stream of ephemeral material, usually unsolicited. Book collectors are important to historians because in these remarkable few may be detected the inclination of countless common readers, less visible, financially less well-endowed, and less obsessive. The collections built up by such as Alexander Turnbull have a value to society as a whole. They usually are opened to others while still in private ownership, and after the owner's death may be bequeathed to institutions. Collections, even if dispersed, may be reconstructed from sale or book auction catalogues. The commercial agents who serve the collection builders, and the societies of like-minded book lovers also deserve attention.