"Agents Wanted:" Subscription Publishing in America
Anatomy and Evolution of Canvassing Outfits

Canvassing books—also referred to in the literature as prospectuses, specimen books, and salemen's dummies—and canvassing outfits, which consist of canvassing books and supplemental materials, were supplied by publishers and used by book agents, or canvassers, to solicit subscriptions. Most canvassing books are basically similar in format. However, they evolved into more elaborate variations on a theme.


Early Examples

James Fenimore Cooper
The Pioneers, or, The Sources of the Susquehana
New York: W.A. Townsend, 1859
On cover: "Specimen Pages and Engravings of Darley's Illustrated Cooper"

This early canvassing book is extremely simple, consisting of the title page, a few sample pages of text, some with illustrations, and blank subscription pages. The only binding choice is shown here, gilt stamped on the front with identifying information and, on the back, a design for the completed book. The publisher is clearly using the front cover to advertise the illustrator of this work, F. O. C. Darley.



Henry Howe
Adventures and Achievements of Americans
[New York: George F. Tuttle, 1858

This slim volume consists of the title page and sample illustrations but no sample text, a broadside advertisement, and subscription pages. The publisher has also included a sheet, attached to the front free endpaper, enumerating his rules and justifying the cost of the book. In addition, a blank "Certificate of Agency" and some "testimonials" (the equivalent of modern "blurbs") have also been pasted in the front of the book.



Francis E. Clark and Harriet Elizabeth Abbott Clark
Our Journey Around the World: An Illustrated Record of a Year's Travel
Hartford: A. D. Worthington, 1894[-1896]
Four copies of the same work, with slightly different dates on the title pages, and a facsimile of the title page

These four copies of the same canvassing book, with minor differences, illustrate the typical canvassing book. The basic components are:

1. Variant bindings, here represented by their spines

2. Title page (in facsimile), including the notice that the work is "Sold by Subscription Only"

3. Sample text and illustrations

4. Testimonials

5. Broadside advertisement and subscription pages

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Complete Canvassing Outfit

Ingram Cobbin
The People's Companion to the Bible
Philadelphia, Chicago, and Kansas City: John C. Winston, 1890
With many additional loose materials included as part of the outfit

This canvassing outfit is unusual in still including the loose materials that originally accompanied it.

Much of this material was intended for the perusal or use of agents, to assist them in their work. Such slips as the "Certificate of Agreement" were intended to be completed and left with the subscriber.



1. A broadside advertisement for the work (on pink paper)

2. "The Unprecedented Success of the 'People's Companion to the Bible,'" a broadside advertisement seeking agents (on blue paper)

3. "A Good Word for Book Agents," by William C. Wilkinson, with "The Successful Agent," a pamphlet justifying subscription publishing and giving general advise to book agents

4. "How to Sell Books." Pamphlet giving general advise to book agents

5. "How to Make Canvassing a Success," a circular of pointers to agents

6. "Making Work Agreeable" a circular to inspire agents

7. An order blank, John C. Winston

8. A form seeking prospective book agents (on yellow paper)

9. The "Agent's Weekly Report"

10. A "Certificate of Agreement;" forms such as these were completed and left with the purchaser as a way of reminding them of their obligation

11. "We Pay Freight and More Besides," an advertisement aimed at agents.

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12. The book itself also includes sales speech slips, often printed on pink paper and sometimes referred to as "pink slips," which provided the agent with material to use in describing the merits of each part of the particular work at hand. Typically found in canvassing outfits, but missing from this one, are the printed testimonials.


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