John Wesley wanted the Methodists to be a reading people. It has been estimated that he and his brother published during their lifetime about 500 separate titles that contained their own writings or edited works, some of them running into several editions. These included sermons, hymns, tracts, abridgements of classic works, a pocket dictionary, Primitive Physick and the wide-ranging extracts collected in the fifty volumes of the Christian Library. This last, John Wesley's most ambitious venture, was a publishing disaster in his lifetime.
Wesley established a 'book room' at the Foundery in 1739. It was transferred to the 'new Chapel' in City Road in 1778 and in course of time it moved a little to the south along City Road. The future author and member of the Oxford 'Inklings', Charles Williams, started work as a packer at the Methodist Book Room before moving in 1908 to Oxford University Press. In 1918 the 'Epworth Press' imprint was adopted, partly to distinguish official publications such as the Agenda and Minutes of Conference, hymn-books and Service Books from more general titles. These included literature, theology, devotional works and biography and helped to subsidize less profitable works. There were also various periodicals such as the "Methodist Magazine and the London Quarterly Review.
Wesley did much to remove literature from the confines of scholarship and make it available in cheap and popular form for the common people. He made precise arrangements for distribution: the itinerant preachers were to take books with them and sell them to reinforce the sermon, though not on Sundays. The MNC and PM were as keen as the WM to encourage reading and by the end of the nineteenth century no ministry was better read than that of PM.
The other branches of Methodism had similar publishing arrangements, though on a smaller scale. The first MNC 'Book Room' was in the manse in Leeds, moving to Manchester, Hanley and back to Manchester before settling in London in 1844, with a committee of which the London preacher was secretary. The first PM book room was housed from 1821 to 1843 in a barn besides Hugh Bourne's home at Bemersley, Staffs and was an important unifying factor in the early connexion, despite there being a Publishing Committee in each District. It survived a fire in 1833 and problems with 'unorthodox book-keeping' methods. It was later noted for the wide range of goods, including bicycles, cameras and sports equipment, marketed in connection with the 'Pleasant Sunday Afternoon' movement. In 1843 it moved to Sutton Street, East London, then to Aldersgate Street in 1895 and in 1910 to Holborn Hall, London. The 'Holborn Press' imprint was adopted in 1919. The first BC book room was at Stoke Damarel, under the care of James Thorne; then at Shebbear from 1818 and in London from 1870. The UMFC and then UM publishing was always in London, using the 'Magnet Press' imprint in later years.
After the Union of 1932 Epworth House, a seven-storey building in City Road, housed Methodist publishing until 1969, being still known affectionately as 'the Book Room'. It then moved first to Wimbledon and in 1988 to Peterborough. In 2008, in the light of financial crisis, Conference agreed that connexional publishing should be integrated into the work of the Connexional Team and the Methodist Publishing House ceased its separate existence. This came into effect in the autumn of 2009. The collection of Epworth Press publications over the years is now housed at Westminster Central Hall.
Welsh Methodism, in spite of its small numbers, had a publishing programme which produced over 400 books and pamphlets during the nineteenth century. Its Book Room (Y Llyfrfa) was first at Dolgellau, then in Llanfair Caereinion and Llanidloes, and from 1859 in Bangor. Yr Eurgrawn (from 1809 until merged into the interdenominational Cristion in 1983) became the oldest continuously published periodical in Welsh. Y Trysor i Blentyn (1825-42) and Y Winllan (1848-1963) were children's monthlies. Y Gwyliedydd (from 1877; since 1910, Y Gwyliedydd Newydd), is the connexional newspaper.
Following his death in 1791, Wesley's book stock was valued at:
Town stock: £3, 930 12 5 Country stock: £ 745 19 0 (less £450 for damaged and unsaleable books)
(Duke University Library)