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English Language & Literature

Resources for conducting literary research on English & American Literatures.

Researching Publication History

seven hardbound books on black surfaceTracing the publication history of a book includes asking questions like:

  • Who published it?
  • How many editions did it go through?
  • What did it cost?
  • How well did it sell?
  • Are there any records of the publishers' decisions about it?

These are often trickier questions than they initially seem. Records for sales figures and prices can be hard to find, especially for books published before the 20th century. Some of this information is in publishers' archives, and some of it doesn't survive. But take heart! There are often ways to work around this kind of question.

Tools to Use

toolboxesUnion catalogs, like the database WorldCat, are listings of what libraries hold in their collections. Union catalogs can reveal details about editions, publishers, and dates of publication in the metadata of their individual records. Sometimes, the metadata may also include details about number of copies printed, physical descriptions of items, and any introductions included.

Bibliographies, both in print and online, can supply you with basic information about when and where different editions of a text were published.

  • See the English Short Title Catalog and the C19 Index (both library databases) for comprehensive bibliographies of books published in England and North America through the end of the nineteenth century.
  • Look in The Early American Imprints series for comprehensive bibliographies of works published in America between 1640 and the first two decades of the 19th century. Explore editions, publishers, and dates of publication.
  • You can also search the Library Search for "bibliography" and your author's name, using the "Subject" search option, to see our holdings for bibliographies of works by and about that author.

Biographies and critical studies of authors can also provide information about the publication histories of individual works, and are worth checking.

  • If your author's letters or diaries have been published, you can try looking for references to correspondence with their publishers.
  • You may also want to search in the Library Search, WorldCat, and/or a general database to see if anyone has already published anything about the publisher(s) you're interested in.

Archives may contain primary sources -- e.g. manuscripts, correspondence, diaries, receipts, ephemera, etc. -- related to the author or publisher.

  • Use a database like ArchiveGrid to begin to identify archives and special collections worldwide related to an individual, publisher, or topic.


Details adapted from the English and American Literature research guide by Amanda Watson, NYU.