The Impact of Distribution and Reading Patterns on the Novel in Britain, 1880-1940

BootsThis project examines the relationship between book history and literary history by investigating whether and to what extent the novel as a literary and cultural form has been affected by changing patterns of the distribution and readership of texts.

The period 1880-1940 is framed by two pivotal moments in literary and publishing history – the decline and eventual disappearance of the three-volume novel and the full emergence of the paperback. Categories such as the best-seller and subgenres such as detective fiction became increasingly distinct from 'mainstream' fiction. The impact of the public library movement, the rise of cheap subscription libraries, new retail outlets, and book clubs exemplify the changes in the circulation of fiction during this period.

How far were publishers and authors consciously seeking to produce fiction that would be acceptable to the market, and what constraints did this involve? To what extent did changes in reading patterns and in the cultural status of fiction influence what was written and published? And what contribution can the analysis of changes in distribution and reading patterns make to a new understanding of one of the most revolutionary periods in the history of English fiction?

Symposium - 24 March 2012

'Authors, Publishers and Readers:  Selling and Distributing Literary Cultures, 1880-1940'

Held at The Special Collections Archive, University of Reading

See the write-up of the day by Lise Jaillaint (PhD candidate in English at the University of British Columbia) on the blogpage of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (SHARP).

Many of the papers will also be appearing in a forthcoming book in Brill's 'Library of the Written Word' Series, The Book World: Selling and Distributing Literature, 1900-40, edited by Nicola Wilson


See the conference programme:  Authors Readers and Publishers Programme

Conference poster:  Symposium poster

Project outputs


'Narrative Dominions: On Writing the History of the Novel in English', with sponsorship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Oxford University Press at the Institute of English Studies, Senate House, University of London, July 2009 (

Radio Interview

Wilson talking on Radio 4 about her research on Virginia Woolf and Hugh Walpole from the Hogarth Press archives in Special Collections

The interview:  Dr Wilson speaking on Radio 4

Papers given

  • Andrew Nash, 'The History of the Novel in Britain, 1880-1940: the AHRC-funded Research Project at the University of Reading', Narrative Dominions, July 2009
  • Nicola Wilson, 'Archive Fever: The Publisher's Archive and the History of the Novel', 'Narrative Dominions' conference, July 2009  [PDF of presentation: Archive Fever]
  • Nicola Wilson, 'Boots and the Novel: The Circulating Libraries and their Readers, c. 1900-40', 'The Retailing and Distribution of Books and Printed Material: Historical Perspectives' conference at the Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution, University of Wolverhampton, March 2010 [pdf of presentation: Boots and the Novel]
  • Andrew Nash, 'Publishing in the 1930s', British Library Study Day on Twentieth Century Publishing', March 2010

  • 'Traces from the Archive: Colonial Editions and British Publishing Houses, 1880-1940' (Wilson), Ghosts, Mediums, Materialities: Reading, Writing and Reception in World Literature, London, July 2010
  • "'Proved winners all, covering all tastes": The first batch and contemporary reading patterns' (Wilson), Penguin Books conference, University of Bristol, June 2010
  • 'Covering Muriel Spark' (Nash), Penguin Books conference, University of Bristol, June 2010
  • 'A Jar of Honey: H.G.Wells and Penguin Books, 1935-1946' (Parrinder), Penguin Books conference, University of Bristol, June 2010
  • 'The Hogarth Press and the Middleman: The Impact of the Book Society in the 1930s' (Wilson), ARPF Popular Fictions: Selling Culture?, Liverpool John Moores University, November 2010

  • 'Virginia Woolf, Hugh Walpole, the Hogarth Press, and the Book Society' (Wilson), Virginia Woolf seminar, University of Oxford, June 2011


  • Andrew Nash, 'The Production of the Novel', in the Oxford History of the Novel, vol 4. The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel 1880-1940, edited by Patrick Parrinder and Andrzej Gasiorek (OUP, 2010, p.3-19)
  • Nicola Wilson, 'Libraries, Reading Patterns and Censorship', in the Oxford History of the Novel, vol 4. The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel 1880-1940, edited by Patrick Parrinder and Andrzej Gasiorek (OUP, 2010, p.36-51)
  • Patrick Parrinder, Andrew Nash and Nicola Wilson (eds), New Directions in the History of the Novel (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

  • Andrew Nash, 'William Clark Russell and Chambers's Journal: Elopement and the Victorian Nautical Novel', in Victorian Periodicals Review 43:1 (Spring 2010), 42-56

  • Andrew Nash, 'Sifting out "rubbish" in the literature of the twenties and thirties': Chatto & Windus and the Phoenix Library', in The Culture of the Publishers' Series, Volume 1: Authors, Publishers and the shaping of taste, ed. John Spiers (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 188-201

  • Nicola Wilson, 'Virginia Woolf, Hugh Walpole, the Hogarth Press, and the Book Society' (Wilson), in English Literary History 79:1 (Spring 2012), 237-60

  • Nicola Wilson, 'Readers, public morality and the distributing agents of fiction, 1900-15', in Prudes on the Prowl: Literature, Obscenity and Censorship in England, 1850-The Present Day, ed. by David Bradshaw and Rachel Potter (OUP, forthcoming)

Professor Patrick Parrinder,

Dr Andrew Nash,

Dr Nicola Wilson,

The above image is reproduced by kind permission from the Boots Archives.   AHRC Logo

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See also

  • Research at the University
  • Consultancy at the University


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