There has long been a gap when it comes to books about magazines in that there has been no substantial history of the industry. That is not to say there are no books that include elements of that history, but the academics Howard Cox and Simon Mowatt are the first authors to take on the complete story, at least for consumer magazines, with Revolutions from Grub Street.
The book takes as its starting point the days of Grub Street – once a real street in London’s Moorfields that by 1630 had given its name to an area where hack writers lived. Grub Street was ‘much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems’, according to Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of 1775, and is today Milton Street.
Dr Johnson and his fellow hacks aspired to move closer to the publishers that employed them, in the centre of the printing and publishing industry around St Paul’s Cathedral. By 1882, Fleet Street had taken over as a shorthand for the ‘whole spirit of the English Press’. Johnson himself moved to Gough Square at the north end of Wine Office Court, an alley that runs from Fleet Street up the side of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub (rebuilt in 1667, having been burnt down the year before in the Great Fire of London).
Fleet Street came to embody the publishing industry because it led to where printing had been established. Wynkyn de Worde had moved Caxton’s printing press to set up a print shop in Shoe Lane after the latter’s death in about 1500. The site is marked by a plaque at the livery hall of the Worshipful Company of Stationers (itself rebuilt after the Great Fire) on Ave Maria Lane, near St Paul’s.
Cox and Mowatt have written a densly-referenced but brisk summary of almost 400 years of magazine-making, of clear interest to academics and researchers in business and strategy. Both authors specialise in business history and Cox wrote The Global Cigarette for OUP. They collaborated on a paper, ‘Networks, Relational Assets and the Internationalisation of Consumer Magazine Publishing‘, the theme of which contributes to this book. They describe how magazine publishing companies developed from the Grub St era by exploiting developments, first in letterpress printing on exemplars such as the Family Herald, and then powered machinery, to meet the demand for popular reading matter from an expanding, and more literate, population.
Penny weeklies and sixpenny monthlies leapt at the opportunity provided by illustrations, famously by Punch and Illustrated London News with their upmarket fare for the middle classes. In 1881, came the publishing sensation of George Newnes’ Tit-Bits, which used innovative journalistic and marketing techniques to help establish strategies for the million-selling popular weekly. Alongside Arthur Pearson and Alfred Harmsworth, these magazine publishers evolved into the massive press baronies of the 20th century that made Fleet Street famous across the world. Grub Street concludes by charting events since the mid-20th century three-way merger that created the giant IPC, and the factors through to the present day that saw it lose its near-monopoly position – but it and its rivals run into the challenge of today’s digital competition.
The book bases its story on events in company structures and the development of the unions, as well as technology. It is weaker on the influence of specific titles and individuals; for example, Stefan Lorant (Pictorial Weekly, Lilliput and Picture Post) is barely mentioned (and his name is mis-spelt). Also, it has a limited scope, focusing on mainstream consumer publishers and rarely touching on trade magazines, newspaper supplements and contract magazines.
However, Grub Street will at last enable course leaders on magazine journalism and publishing courses to address a gaping hole in their syllabuses.
Revolutions from Grub Street: A history of magazine publishing in Britain by Howard Cox and Simon Mowatt, Oxford University Press, 288 pages, £35