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Charles Scribner's Sons © Jessica Spengler/Flickr
Charles Scribner's Sons © Jessica Spengler/Flickr
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A Brief History of New York Publishing

Picture of JW McCormack
Updated: 13 October 2017

There’s no one, definitive story of New York publishing, only distinct histories of how a few book publishers – most of them located on “Publisher’s Row” on Park Avenue – and magazines became the center of publishing in the United States. Read on to find out more…

As depicted in William Dean Howells’s 1889 novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes, the 19th century was something of a golden age for literary journals, with Harper’s launching in 1857 (with the original slogan “A Journal of Civilization”), Colliers Weekly in 1889 (with early contributors including Ernest Hemingway and Upton Sinclair), and The New Yorker in 1925. An exception to the rule was The Atlantic Monthly, which published out of Boston beginning in 1857, and was characterized as being more politically moderate than the usually left-leaning New York-based publications.

One magazine that’s been lost to the mists of time is the once-highly regarded Century and its children’s magazine St. Nicholas– the magazine-printing arm of the book publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons, distinguished by its luxurious Ernest Flagg-designed office on Fifth Avenue, which had been operating since 1846. Scribner’s was only one of the major book publishers that would come to dominate the industry; but few had beginnings as quixotic as that of Simon & Schuster, which was born when Richard Simon’s aunt complained at the lack of crossword book publishers – Simon pooled $8,000 with his friend Max Schuster and they set out to exploit the trend.

Perhaps the most prestigious of the New York publishing houses, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, was founded by Roger Straus and John C. Farrar in 1946, printing diet books before finally coming into their own in 1955 when they hired Robert Giroux, who brought aboard writers such as J.D. Salinger, Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, and Jack Kerouac.

On the other end of the spectrum was Grove Press, founded by the prankish Barney Rosset, who oversaw the stateside debuts of popular European authors such as Jean Genet, D.H. Lawrence, and Bertolt Brecht, defending his authors in court when obscenity laws tried to keep them off the shelves. Above all, Grove published Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot might otherwise have remained an avant-garde obscurity. Rossett brought similar prominence to American authors William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) and Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer), making him one of the great heroes of independent publishing.

A few of the most celebrated magazines and book publishers in the U.S. actually had origins overseas. The Paris Review began in 1953 on the banks of the Seine in Paris under the editorship of George Plimpton and his fellow American expatriates, before moving to New York in 1973. And Penguin Books was originally a U.K. publisher that became incorporated in the U.S. in 1970. As Amazon.com came to jeopardize the livelihoods of both bookstores and even Big Five publishers, Penguin has frequently led the opposition, even going to court for fixing the price of e-books in 2012 in order to compete with Amazon’s near-monopoly. Even late-night host Stephen Colbert stepped into the fray, engaging in a public rivalry with Amazon on behalf of his publisher, the Hachette Book Group, urging his viewers to preorder California by Edan Lepucki.

The face of New York publishing has changed dramatically since the dynamic 1960s, with today’s best magazines split between the truly venerable (The New York Review of Books) and young, politically-committed magazines like n+1. Despite the rise of Internet-savvy magazines such as Slate and VICE, it remains an exciting time in publishing, with some of the best writing ever produced coming out of small presses such as New Directions and Melville House.

It’s also worth recognizing the efforts of the PEN American Center, an international literary organization as well as a human rights group, which consistently battled for literacy and free speech, a tradition it has continued under current the president (and experienced victim of censorship), Salman Rushdie. The values it expounds are the same that have informed two centuries of American publishing: innovation, eloquence, and global circumference.