Institutional libraries have always exerted an enormous influence on what publishers publish. Virtually no publisher today would be able to publish expensive serial publications like biomedical journals if institutional libraries did not buy up virtually the entire press run. Publishers of hardback books of every persuasion likely would go belly-up did not most institutional libraries still prefer hardbacks to paperbacks because hardbacks can better absorb the hard wear of circulation. But few modern institutional libraries have ever influenced what publishers publish as consistently and as significantly as Mudie's Circulating Library influenced publishing in Victorian Britain.
As George Landow notes in a recent article, from 1842 to 1894 Mudie's
influenced Victorian literature, particularly fiction, in two chief ways: first, by making sure that almost all novels appeared in three volumes, it had important effects on the structure, plot, style, and even imaginative worlds of the Victorian novel; and second, by acting as a censor who demanded fiction suited to the middle-class family, it controlled the subject, scope, and morality of the novel for fifty years....
Everything from Dickens' Great Expectations to Hardy's Return of the Native saw their first appearance in book form as a three-decker (the true first appearance in print often having been a serialization). Sumner & Stillman, an ABAA bookseller based in Yarmouth, ME, has made something of a specialty of three-deckers by virtue of its focus on 19th century authors (as can be seen from the images below of titles currently on offer):
Mudie's preference for the three volume format was purely economic--it allowed him to circulate a single title to three different subscribers at the same time. By forcing British publishers to price this format beyond the reach of the general public (while himself buying the very same books at an enormous discount), he realized substantial profits for over five decades. (The images below are by way of The Kelmscott Bookshop and Adrian Harrington Rare Books):
Anyone interested in collecting three-deckers will want to have handy a copy of Griest:
Sotheby's held a major auction of three-deckers back in 1970-73, though the catalogs can be a bit difficult to locate. More likely to be available in the marketplace is a checklist that Sidney University compiled of the three-decker collection held by its Fisher Library back in 1980....