First published in 1872, the magazine began as The Publishers' Weekly (with an apostrophe), a collective catalog for publishers to pool their resources. That listing of books enabled booksellers to learn about forthcoming titles, and eventually the publication expanded to include features and articles.
Through much of the 20th century, the magazine was guided and developed by Frederic Gershom Melcher (1879-1963), who was editor and co-editor of Publishers' Weekly and chairman of the magazine's publisher, R. R. Bowker, over four decades. Born April 12, 1879, in Malden, Massachusetts, Melcher began at age 16 in Boston's Estes & Lauriat Bookstore, moving to Indianapolis in 1913 for another bookstore job. In 1918, he read in Publishers' Weekly that the magazine's editorship was vacant. He applied to Richard Rogers Bowker for the job, was hired and moved with his family to Montclair, New Jersey. When Bowker died in 1933, Melcher succeeded him as president of the company, resigning in 1959 to become chairman of the board of directors.
Subject areas covered by Publishers Weekly include bookstores, book design and manufacture, bookselling, marketing, merchandising and trade news, along with author interviews and regular columns on film rights, people in publishing and bestsellers. It attempts to serve all involved in the creation, production, marketing and sale of the written word in book, audio, video and electronic formats. The magazine increases the page count considerably for special issues: Children's Books, Spring Announcements and Fall Announcements.
Now titled "Reviews," the review section was once called "Forecasts." The "Forecasts" editor for many years was Genevieve Stuttaford, who greatly expanded the number of reviews. She joined the PW staff in 1975, after a period as a Saturday Review associate editor, reviews for Kirkus Reviews and 12 years on the San Francisco Chronicle staff. During the 23 years Stuttaford was with Publishers Weekly, book reviewing was increased from an average of 3800 titles a year in the 1970s to well over 6500 titles in 1997. She retired in 1998.
Texas novelist Clay Reynolds, in The Texas Institute of Letters Newsletter (February, 2004), gave a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the policies of PW and other review publications:
F. G. Melcher's son, David Melcher, explained in 1967 what happened to those thousands of review copies sent to PW:
Today, it is part of Reed Business Information's Publishing Group (a subsidiary of Reed Elsevier), which includes Variety and Daily Variety, as well as the book publishing trade outlets Criticas, Library Journal and School Library Journal. For most of its history, Publishers Weekly, along with the Library Journal-related titles, were owned by founding publisher R. R. Bowker. When Reed Publishing purchased Bowker from the Xerox Corporation in 1985, it placed Publishers Weekly under the management of its Boston-based Cahners Publishing Company, the trade publishing empire founded by Norman Cahners, which Reed Publishing purchased in 1977. The merger of Reed with the Netherlands-based Elsevier in 1993 led to many Cahners cutbacks amid takeover turmoil. Nora Rawlinson, who once headed a $4 million book selection budget at the Baltimore County Library System, edited Library Journal for four years before stepping in as editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly from 1992 to 2005.
Nelson immediately began to modernize and streamline Publishers Weekly with new features and a complete makeover by illustrator and graphic designer Jean-Claude Suarès. The many alterations included added color (with drop shadows behind color book covers), Nelson's own weekly editorial, illustrated bestseller lists and "Signature," longer boxed reviews written by well-known novelists. The switch to a simple abbreviated logo of initials effectively changed the name of the magazine to PW, the name long used for the magazine within the book industry.
She also introduced the magazine's Quill Awards, with nominees in 19 categories selected by a nominating board of 6,000 booksellers and librarians. Winners are determined by the reading public, who can vote (from August 15 to September 15) at kiosks in Borders stores or online at the Quills site.
In the past, the front covers of Publishers Weekly have been used to carry advertisements by book publishers, and this policy was changed to some degree in 2005. Although new PW covers now display illustrations and photographs tied into interior articles, these covers are often hidden behind a front cover foldout advertisement. The visual motif of each cover is sometimes repeated on the contents page.