The Commercial Function of Historical Book Reviews: An Interrogation of the Angus & Robertson Archives


Book reviews have an understudied commercial function, acting as a crucial link between publishers and the press within the interactive book trade. For most of the modern period the newspaper and periodical press were the dominant print media and therefore an important source of information and entertainment for the public. The book trade relied on the press to distribute book-related content, including reviews. Yet in existing scholarship, reviews tend to be cited only as evidence of reception for individual titles, authors or genres. In contrast, this paper interrogates historical reviewing from the perspective of Angus & Robertson, the leading Australian publishing house in the twentieth century. It undertakes a close qualitative and distant quantitative analysis of the firm’s surviving promotional records, finding that in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries Angus & Robertson distributed tens of thousands of review copies all around the world. In return they secured extensive press coverage, ensuring their books were placed before the attention of large audiences. From this specific case study, the paper seeks to extrapolate broader ideas about the commercial function of reviewing, positioning it firmly within a publishing and marketing nexus.

Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the public was reliant on the newspaper and periodical press for entertainment, news and information. Even before mass literacy newspapers were being read aloud by the literate members of a community. By the mid-nineteenth century high literacy rates, reduced regulations, and the emergence of new print, communication and transportation technologies resulted in the mass circulation of print media and a commercialisation of the press (Raven; Steinberg). More newspapers and periodicals were being produced, and they were being read by larger and more diverse audiences than ever before. The press had become an indispensable part of daily life, described by S. H. Steinberg as ‘an instrument of mass-information and mass-education’ (161) and by Alan Lee as ‘the most important single medium of the communication of ideas’ (18).

In Australia, the first colonial newspaper, the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, was established…

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Published 30 April 2021 in Volume 36 No. 1. Subjects: Book history, Book reviewing, Transnationalism, Literary archive, Digital publishing, Magazine/periodical studies, Print culture.

Cite as: Ward, Rebekah. ‘The Commercial Function of Historical Book Reviews: An Interrogation of the Angus & Robertson Archives.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.e74f36b4b6.