"Publisher's Binding" is the accepted term to describe any commercially published cloth-covered, case-bound book from the 19th Century. Dealers, curators, collectors, librarians, catalogers, conservators--everyone uses it. Hell, it's even a Library of Congress Subject Heading.
But unfortunately, even though it is common, it is terribly vague. When one looks to the literature on the subject, conservation dictionaries and serious bibliographers refrain from capitalizing the term, using "publisher's bindings" in the lower-case, not as a proper noun, and preferring terms like "edition binding" and "publisher's cloth." (See Etherington & Roberts, Ligatus' Thesaurus of Bindings, Gaskell's A New introduction to Bibliography, Carter's ABC for Book Collectors, Sadleir's The evolution of publishers' binding styles 1770-1900, for example.)
Let's look at one definition of Publisher's Binding to examine where it comes up short in usefulness: "In America from the early 19th c., a binding done in the same materials and decoration for the entire edition (or in batches); the specific binding is designed, arranged, and paid for by the publisher." (Glaister, Geoffrey. Encyclopaedia of the Book. Oak Knoll Press, 1996.)
Note how this definition is qualified by location (America) and time (from the early 19th c.). Without qualifiers of location and time, the term would include literally every book commercially published since publisher's vertically integrated in the industrial revolution. So I tend to believe the phrase is meaningless without specific qualifiers. Unqualified, the term disregards those books that were published beyond the assumed, implied, vague limits of the "early 19th to early 20th century." Why is there a cut-off of the early 20th century? And why aren't contemporary books technically Publisher's Bindings? And what about vertically integrated publishers before the early 19th century, who technically might have produced (including binding) their editions in batches? Gaskell cites Sadleir's research that "edition binding was approached in the 1760s by the printer-publisher Newbery of London." And well before that, Anton Koberger's Nuremburg Chronicle of 1493 was a very large, vertically-integrated production, with some batches likely bound in specific ways by Koberger's shop. Technically, these aren't regarded as Publisher's Bindings even though they are publisher's bindings. You see what I'm saying?
Don't write me hate mail--I know that I've got to chill out and accept the fact that "Publisher's Bindings" is a descriptive term that is here to stay. But I would suggest for folks to be sure to use qualifiers. The late Sue Allen, in her course at Rare Book School, use the term Publisher's Bindings and I certainly can't argue with as venerable an expert as that--but note that she provided a date range, and now, in the current iteration of the course, led by Todd Pattison, the term is qualified by location and date: "American Publishers’ Bookbindings, 1800–1900." Perfecto!!
Alright, call me Robin Goodfellow, so we can move on from this theme, and how. "Gentles, do not reprehend: if you pardon, we will mend" ...let me share some great resources about American and English publisher's bindings from the 1810s to 1930s!
The Cover Sells the Book: Transformations in Commercial Book Publishing, 1860-1920 is a current exhibition produced by the Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives of the Delaware Art Museum. The online exhibition is an excellent introductory resource, and I'm sure the physical exhibition is excellent too. In the online exhibit, the works of some important designers of the period are highlighted (I'll share of my favorites in the next blog post), along with a good deal of informative contextual information.
Their "Timeline for Publisher's Bindings" is a nice, though not totally original, feature, that I'd certainly recommend. You'll see a couple of bindings repeated from other, sometimes richer, online exhibitions from the University of Alabama's Publishers' Bindings Online, Rare Book School, and the University of Rochester's "Beauty for Commerce: Publisher's Bindings, 1830-1910." But don't let that stop you - there is so much variation, and so many examples that illustrate the historical trends - that there is much to enjoy from each presentation.
Although these exhibitions are excellent, remember that the best, deepest, and most reliable info is from published literature. Start with the reading lists from Rare Book School, and if you can, take the class!