Wiebke Wiede

The Business of Ideas. Perspectives of the History of Publishing


The history of publishing practices offers a wide range of new perspectives of intellectual history. According to Chartier’s ‘l'histoire du livre’, books could be considered as mediums of ideas, as instruments of communication, as products of artisan production, but also as objects of economic exchange. Publishing, the process of selection, preparation, and marketing of printed matter, is a business of selling ideas with a need for the expenses of creating, producing, and distributing a book or other publications. The history of publishing analyzes the production and consumption of ideas in regarding publishing houses as institutions, which facilitate the communication and diffusion of thought, and considering publishers as a crucial interface between economic and cultural interests. Especially since the late 19th Century, publishers show an enormous variety of company structures and programs, producing and selling books in large scale and for different markets and different contexts, also outside the circles of élite culture, spreading ideas of academic knowledge, sciences, law, literacy, arts, religious studies, or medicine, but also cheap literature, trash or fantasy novels. In establishing links between these publishing fields, but furthermore between intellectual history and social and economic history, the history of publishing opens new insights into the interactions of the social function of information, the circulation of texts, or the emergence of cultural movements. To illustrate the methodological approach of publishing history, I want to come back to some results of my Ph.D. thesis (published 2011), telling some stories of Weimar Republic publishers, the challenges of changing book markets, and the sales conditions of anti-Semitic publications.