Using Google Books to Research Publishing History

At the upcoming Modern Language Association conference, I will join Amanda French and Eleanor Shevlin on a panel called “The Library of Google: Researching Scanned Books,” which is sponsored by SHARP and will be moderated by Michael Hancher.  Google Books has already scanned over 7 million volumes (more than many research libraries hold) and, according to Planet Google, aims to scan every volume in the WorldCat catalog, around 32 million. Our panel will focus on the significance of Google Books for literary research, looking at questions such as whether scholars can trust it and how they should deal with such plenitude.  I plan to discuss my study examining how many of the works in my dissertation bibliography are now available electronically, as well as more recent work using Google Books and other online sources to explore the history of a nineteenth-century bestseller, Donald Grant Mitchell’s Reveries of a Bachelor (1850).  Reveries fascinates me—not so much because I identify with the bachelor narrator’s fantasies and fears of what it’s like to be married (actually, I find the book kind of cloying), but because I’m intrigued by Reveries‘ cultural impact from the 1850s into the early twentieth century.  It sold at least a million copies and appeared in dozens of editions,  from a cheap edition selling for 8 cents to a $6 gift volume in an exquisite morocco binding.  Emily Dickinson loved it, as did readers who evinced their admiration by sending fan letters to Mitchell or making marks in the margins of their book.  In this blog post, I’ll focus on how I’ve employed Google Books to illuminate Reveries‘ publishing history; future posts will look at reader responses, textual history, and authorship.

For a graduate seminar on textual editing way back in the 90s,  I developed an online critical edition of the book’s first reverie.  I also wrote an article analyzing a series of letters that Reveries’ publisher, Charles Scribner II, sent to Mitchell to negotiate the pricing and physical form of new editions between 1883 and 1907, as the publisher and author worked to sustain the popularity of the book and maintain their hold on the market after their copyright expired.  But my publishing history is incomplete; I want to know more about the different forms Reveries took, how it was advertised, what the prices were at different times, how well the book sold, what marketing strategies Scribner and other publishers pursued, and whether Reveries is a unique case or fairly typical, at least for a nineteenth century bestseller.

By using Google Books, I’ve been able to fill in some details about the book’s publishing history, particularly about pricing and advertising.  As amazed as I am by ability to search across millions of books for references to Reveries, I’m also somewhat frustrated by the strange ways that Google Book search works (or doesn’t work) and disappointed that some materials don’t seem to be available.

Title page of 1850 Reveries of a Bachelor

Title page of 1850 Reveries of a Bachelor

What I already knew:

  • The authorized publisher of Reveries, Scribner’s, issued many editions, including:
  • Copyright on Reveries expired in 1892, which meant that other publishers could legally come out with their own editions of the book.  Charles Scribner II wrote to Donald Grant Mitchell to discuss how to respond to this challenge, particularly the threat from Altemus, which he characterized as a “piratical publisher.” Scribner proposed offering a cheap (30 cent) edition “to make it so unprofitable that the publisher [Altemus] will not be encouraged to take up the other books [by Mitchell],” along with a moderately-priced (75 cent) edition.  At the suggestion of Mitchell, Scribner also advertised that the company remained the only authorized publisher of Reveries.
  • Undeterred, many publishers issued unauthorized editions, including Henry Altemus Company, Optimus Printing Company, The Rodgers Company, Donohue, Henneberry, & Co, Porter, W. L. Allison Company, F. T. Neely, Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers, The Mershon Company Publishers, G. Munro’s Sons, H. M. Caldwell Company, The Henneberry Company, M. A. Donohue & Company, Homewood Company, A. L. Burt Company, The F. M. Lupton Company, H. M. Caldwell Co., Strawbridge & Clothier, The Edward Publishing Company, W. B. Conkey Company, Acme Printing Company, The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers, and R. F. Fenno & Company (BAL, 240-1; NUC, 664-667).   While I was researching Reveries at Yale, I came across several of these volumes, one of which had annotations such as “The illustrations are [most of them] execrable, & there is an occasional ‘mending’ of the text…”  In the preface to the 1907 Author’s Complete Edition of Reveries, Mitchell fixated on the problem of piracy, noting that he had amassed a collection of over 40 imprints of Reveries, only one of which brought him any money.  Apparently Mitchell’s collection–and annotations–ended up at Yale.


To determine how many Reveries related works were available in Google Books, I did a keyword search for “Reveries of a Bachelor.”  The total number of results fluctuated; one day it was 641, another 916, another 809.  But forget about getting to result #641.  One result screen says: “151 – 200 of 809,” but then the next one says “Books 201 – 220 of 220.”  Huh? So what happened to everything else?  Perhaps duplicates are eliminated as you make your way through the results (although there were plenty of duplicates in the results I looked at), perhaps the algorithm used to calculate the number of results is, er, inexact and shifting, or perhaps Google figures you don’t really want to look that many results anyway.  Whatever the explanation, I can’t help wonder about what I’m not getting to see, so my trust in Google Books is diminished a bit, even as I feast on the plenty that is available. 

In any case, I looked at each result available to me, discarding those that weren’t really focused on Reveries and grabbing the bibliographic info for the rest through Zotero.  (I love Zotero, but I was a little frustrated that it didn’t capture the URL and publisher info for  Google Books, which may have to do with the way that Google makes available that information.)  When I wasn’t impeded by texts that offered only snippet views or no preview at all, I copied out a chunk of text that contained the Reveries reference and dumped it into a note in Zotero.  Categorizing as I waded through the results, I added a tag or two for each work, such as “reveries_ad” or “reveries_review.”

Since Mitchell used the pen name “Ik Marvel,” I also searched for “Ik Marvel” (1285 results, today) and “Ike Marvel” (606 results); I’m still working through those results.   I used TAPOR to generate a list of word pairs in Reveries that I hoped to use in searching for works connected to Reveries, but there were only a few pairs that seemed at all unique, such as “Aunt Tabithy,” the name of a character in the book.

Bobbs-Merrill Ad for Reveries

Bobbs-Merrill Ad for Reveries

What I discovered about publishing history using Google Books

  • Pricing: By searching book catalogs, advertisements, and old issues of Publishers Weekly, I was able to track the price for different versions of Reveries between 1851 and 1906.  The pricing data reveals the many choices enjoyed by consumers who wanted to buy a copy of Reveries, particularly at the end of the nineteenth century, when competing publishers entered the market.  Say a consumer in the late nineteenth century wanted a cheap copy of Reveries.  How about paying 8 cents for the “Ideal Library” version, or 18 cents for “Handy Volume” edition? How about a moderately priced edition?  The price of Scribner’s standard duodecimo edition remained fairly steady between 1854 and 1903: $1.25.  If people craved a fine edition, they would have many choices, such as the 1903 Dainty Small Gift Books, Agate Morocco Series with gilt edges for $2.25, the 1906 Bobbs-Merrill Ashe Illustrated Gift Edition for $2, the 1903 Limp Walrus Edition for $2,  the 1903 Limp Lizard Series for $1.50,   (If I start a band, I’m going to call it Limp Lizard.)Big gaps in my knowledge remain–I wasn’t able to find pricing information for the 1850 first edition or the 1907 Edgewood Edition, or for many of the unauthorized editions.   However, without the ability to search across a vast collection of texts I doubt I would have been able to find much of the pricing information at all, particularly in the book advertisements that appeared in magazines and at the end of books, as publishers promoted other books in their catalog.  I probably should have known to look for information about Reveries in book catalogs and late nineteenth-century issues of Publisher’s Weekly, but Google Book Search sure made it easy for me to find relevant information.
  • Response to the copyright expiration: In one of Scribner’s letters to Mitchell, I found a copy of an ad Scribners planned to run advertising its cheap edition and asserting that some portions of Reveries (the new prefaces) remained in copyright.  In Publisher’s Weekly from 1893, I found what I think is that very ad.  I wondered if Scribner’s was unique in handling copyright expiration by releasing a cheap edition and asserting continued copyright over some section. Apparently not. Right after a Scribner’s ad warning that “An action will be promptly brought against any one infringing upon the author rights,” I saw a similar ad from J. B. Lippincott Company for Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, reminding “the trade” that the illustrations remained in copyright and promoting a new 75 cent cheap edition.
  • Marketing: By examining over 25 ads for Reveries available through Google Books, I’ve noticed some (fairly unsurprising) patterns:  Although the book was in Scribner’s catalog throughout the late 19th century, promotion of the book was ramped up when new editions were issued; the publisher often took out full page ads or put Reveries at the top of ads announcing several books.  By the 1890s, Scribner’s was describing Reveries as “an American classic” and predicting that the book would win over “fresh fields” of new readers.  Although I’ve found few ads from competing publishers, Bobbs-Merrill came out with an eye-catching ad for its illustrated gift edition in 1906.   So that I have a visual record of stuff I’ve look at, I’ve set up a Google notebook with clippings of ads for and reviews of Reveries that I found in Google Books.  Creating the notebook was easy; if the book is in the public domain, you can clip out sections of text and post them to your Google Notebook or Blogger blog. (If only you could post to a WordPress blog, or Flickr…)
  • Versions of Reveries: I expected to find more editions of Reveries in Google Books.  When I did a title search for “Reveries of a Bachelor,” only 21 results were returned, and only 4 of those are available as full view, even though 20 were published before 1921 and are in the public domain. (Another is a large print reprint edition from 2008.)  By contrast, the Open Content Alliance provides full access to 18 versions of Reveries, including an 1889 edition marked “Book digitized by Google from the library of the New York Public Library and uploaded to the Internet Archive by user tpb.” (By the way, tpb has apparently uploaded a number of Google Books into the Open Content Archive, prompting some folks to complain about the “pollution” of the OCA by “marginal” Google content.) So why are so many public domain texts in Google Books not fully available?  I’m not really sure, although Planet Google says that Google Books contains metadata (catalog) records for works that it did not digitize and thus are not in its collection.  In any case, if you’re interested in the physical form of books, the Open Content Alliance seems to be a better source than Google Books, since every page is scanned in full color (except, of coure, what’s been uploaded from Google Books) and is presented in a book-like interface, with flippable pages.  You can download pdf, plain text, and DJVU versions, which promotes (re-)use and analysis of the books. I should note that the Open Content Alliance has its own quirks.   OCA content appears to be available through two online collections: the Internet Archive and Open Library.  It’s not immediately obvious how to do a full-text search in OCA. It seems that you can only search bibliographic metadata in the Internet Archive, but you can do full text search at the Open Library.  To do so, go to the advanced search ( and enter your query into the search box at the bottom.  Another quirk:  you can’t see front covers in OCA in the flip-view interface, but you can if you look at the DJVU files. But it’s even easier to put page images from OCA content into a Google Notebook; whereas in Google Books you have to crop out a section of a page and select where to send it, with OCA you just right click and send the entire page image to your notebook. (For instance, I created one for different editions of Reveries, documenting illustrations, title pages, etc.)

Limitations of Google Books

  • As noted above, not all public domain materials are available
  • Weirdness in retrieval of search results; 800 results suddenly become 220 when you work your way through the results
  • OCR errors: Among the different variations of “Ik Marvel” and “Reveries of a Bachelor; A Book of the Heart” that I found:
    o    IK MABVEL
    o    Heveries of a Bachelor (a search for this term yields 10 results in Google Books)
    o    REVERIES OF A BACHELOR; or, a Rook of the Heart
    o    REVERIES OF A BACHELOR; or, a Bonk of the Heart.
    o    Reveries of a Bad elor.
    o    REVERIES OF A BACHELOR, a Boob of the Heart. By IK. MAETEL
    You have to be resourceful, then, in how you construct a search, taking into account OCR problems.  That said, “Reveries of a Bachelor” returned hundreds of results.
  • Google Books does not contain archival materials. (Google has moved into digitizing newspapers and magazines, so who knows–maybe archives are coming? But it would be very tricky and expensive for Google to undertake such a project.)  Although searching Google Books is certainly more convenient than visiting an archive, I love being in archives, looking at stuff that few others have seen.  Even though I found a lot of useful resources in Google Books, I learned the most about the publishing history of Reveries by examining the letters from Charles Scribner II to Mitchell held by the Beinecke Library at Yale and by examining the volumes referenced in the letters.
  • If you’re interested in bibliography, as I am, looking at even a high quality scan can’t substitute for examining the physical volume, studying details such as the size of the book, the quality of the paper, the bindings, etc. But scans can give you an idea of what the volume looks like and help you to identify it.

In my next post, I’ll look at how using Google Books is helping me reconstruct the history of readers’ responses to Reveries.


12 responses to “Using Google Books to Research Publishing History

  1. Very interesting. For what is worth Altemus published this title in hundreds of formats between 1892 and the late 1920’s.

  2. I’m curious why you’re framing this blog post, and your panel, in terms of using Google Books specifically, rather than scanned book collections more generally. You even mention that you found the OCA content more useful for your specific research interest, yet you consistently refer to your research as “using Google Books.” Obviously Google is the 800-pound gorilla in the book scanning space, but this still strikes me as akin to a scholar of the early 1990s writing and speaking about “Using Microsoft Windows to Do Research.”

  3. Ryan,

    Thanks for your comment. Google Books does seem to receive more attention than other scanning projects (perhaps unfairly), probably because of its audacity in seeking to scan so many books and in its approach to copyright (and maybe because it’s Google.) Even though this post focuses on Google Books (since that is the focus of the MLA panel), my own work looks at several digital collections, including OCA, Making of America, Early American Fiction, Wright American Fiction, etc. In this post, I made a point of explaining how OCA proved better for examining different editions of Reveries of a Bachelor.

  4. Pingback: Studying the History of Reading Using Google Books (and Other Sources) « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

  5. “REVERIES OF A BACHELOR; or, a Bonk of the Heart.”


    What a great post, I will be sending my grad students here. Google Books (and other digitization projects) are changing the way we do research so very quickly. I do 19th century U.S. history and I cannot believe the obscure and even unknown books that are popping up.

  6. Also, I made a post about using Google Books to research my favorite 19th-century book, The Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs:

  7. Thanks, Larry!

  8. I have this book. My mother passed Christmas day 08′ and it was found with her belongings. This book does not have a date. I would like to know when it was published. It was published by Hurst and Company: New York. It is Non-illistrated. The only date listed is something written in the front which reads: Jennie Firth Xmas 1896. Then underneath another which reads: Robert T. Wright UT Knoxville (This man owned my mother’s rental home before she bought it and has passed) He left the book in the wall, during remodel, my dad found it.-There is a hugh difference between the writings. You can tell the top is much older style of print. It is Hardback, burg. in color with beautiful silver scroll type design with the name in the center then a line and then MARVEL. Still the only date is the one written on the first page. I can not find it anywhere. Would just like to know when it was published????? ANY IDEAS????? THANKS

    • Sorry about the loss of your mother. I would suspect that the book was published in the mid-to-late 1890s and is an unauthorized edition of Reveries of a Bachelor, but I can’t say for sure without seeing it. You might want to search ABE Books or eBay to see if you can find a cover image that matches your own.

  9. Pingback: Digital Humanities in 2008, II: Scholarly Communication & Open Access « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

  10. I stumbled across your commentary and enjoyed it very much. I am glad to see that academics are giving credit for your kind of research.
    I do have a copy dated 1852, published by Charles Scribner. Illustrated…Blue cover with gold decoration….Dedicated to Mrs. E. L. Dixon of Hartford, CT. Most of the other dates are 1850, from New York.
    It was in my library, given to me by my dad years ago….Might anyone be interested?
    Let me know, Dr. Janice E. Patten
    or 831-335-2308

    • Thanks for getting in touch! It’s great that you have a copy of the 1852 illustrated edition. If you were interested in selling it, you might be able to do so through eBay or a dealer, but my impression is that it’s fairly common, so I’m not sure that you would make much. I’d check abebooks and ebay to see comparables.

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