This extract from the Publishers Encyclopedia gives a brief summary of his life;
James Nisbet, born February 3, 1785 in Scotland, was apprenticed to Mr. Charles Wilson at the age of 15 (Wallace 9, 13). At the age of 24, in 1809, he began a bookselling business at 15 Castle Street in London, England, using his own name for the name of the company (Wallace 59). According to John Wallace, Nisbet’s son-in-law, his first transaction was the sale of a copy of the Shorter Catechism to a child, which was very fitting considering the emphasis he would place on religious texts in the future (Wallace 59). Nisbet’s company is most widely known for the wide variety of quality texts that they published, especially in regards to religious texts (Wallace 59). Other genres that they became known for included biographies, children’s books, and young reader books.
In 1824, Nisbet moved the location of his office from 15 Castle Street to 21 Berners Street in London (Brown). In approximately 1836, he changed the name of his company to James Nisbet & Company (Brown). The reason for this is unclear.
During his many years of publishing, James Nisbet published several significant works, but the best-selling publication of the company was The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner. They published the first known British edition of this novel in 1852 alongside Sampson Low and Hamilton Adams, two other prominent publishers of the time. During the publication of the novel, a steady correspondence between James Nisbet and Susan Warner reveals that he worked closely with the author while publishing her novel.
Nisbet also published numerous series lists, some of the most significant being “The Golden Ladder Series,” “The Pilgrim Series,” and “The Golden Silence Series.” In many of their publications, they included advertisements for other works. It can be seen in these advertisements that the author’s names figure quite prominently, being included with every work mentioned. Often an author’s name is also used as a heading, followed by their list of works.
Although James Nisbet was the publisher of many works, they outsourced a significant amount of work done on their publications. James Ballantyne, Richard Clay and Sons, and G. Barclay are all known to have done printing for Nisbet’s publications. It is also possible that Ballantyne, Hanson, and Co and T. and A. Constable did some printing for James Nisbet. Furthermore, it appears that Edinburgh University Press did some printing or editing for the company and that Edmund Evans did some printing, engraving, or illustrating work.
In several of James Nisbet’s publications, new technologies and practices are a focus. The most common focus of this area is the fact that many of their publications come “with illustrations,” or with later works, “with coloured illustrations.” Other highlights of their work are “gilt edges” and “cloth boards.”
James Nisbet died on November 9th as a widely known philanthropist (due to his large donations to several churches over the course of his lifetime) and a respected publisher (Wallace).
Brown, Philip A. H. London Publishers and Printers C. 1800-1870. London: British Library, 1982. Print.
Wallace, John Aikman. Lessons from the Life of the Late James Nisbet, Publisher: A Study for Young Men. Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter, &, 1867. Print.