"Agents Wanted:" Subscription Publishing in America
Variant Formats:
Canvassing Books, Sample Books, and Their Progeny

While most canvassing books closely resemble each other, publishers did develop variant formats for their prospectuses. Sample books lacking blank subscription pages are the most notable. They were used in conjunction with separate order books to create a canvassing outfit. Sample books are still used today to solicit subscriptions for certain types of publications, notably medical textbooks and expensive art books. Other variants include different types of combination outfits, which advertise more than one title, and outfits which were sent directly to potential subscribers.

Partial Sample Book

Horace Greeley
The American Conflict, Vol. I
Hartford: O.D. Case; Chicago: George Sherwood, 1864

This sample book consists only of specimen pages and plates. Unlike canvassing books, and even many sample books, which have only representative pages and plates, this specimen is complete up to page 144, where it simply stops. Anticipating the end of the Civil War, the publishers were attempting to be among the first to profit from it. According to them, "Volume II will be published so soon as practicable after the close of the War, and in all respects will be fully equal to Vol. I." This specimen, intended for magazine and newspaper editors, was an attempt to solicit favorable notices even before publication. The publisher also produced a distinct canvassing book for this title, to be used by book agents soliciting subscriptions. The back of the wrappers, announcing that the work will be "sold exclusively by subscription," provides a price list for the work and advertises for agents to sell it.

Complete Sample Book

Ik Marvel [pseudonym for Donald Grant Mitchell]
Reveries of a Bachelor
Indianapolis: bobbs-Merrill, c1906

This sample book-stamped "Sample" on the front cover-is complete. While it contains no subscription conditions or blank pages on which to list subscriptions, it does contain a sample alternative binding style. The agent using this book must have had an order book to take down subscription details.

Order Book

Elisha Kent Kane
Arctic Explorations
Philadelphia: [Childs & Peterson, 1855]

This order book contains a one-page prospectus for the work and sixty-three blue subscription leaves. An order book was often used in conjunction with a sample book, which would give the prospective subscriber some idea of what he or she was buying. However, the publisher may have printed up order books for Kane's work prior to printing any of it, possibly to see how many advance subscriptions it could obtain. George Childs, in his Recollections, recounts using what was either a sample book or a canvassing book to sell Arctic Explorations. This indicates that more than an order book existed for this work, although it does not clarify the ways in which these two related sales props were used.

Three Related Titles in One Canvassing Book

Joel Tyler Headly
The Achievements of Stanley
Philadelphia, et al.: Hubbard Bros.; St. Louis: N. D. Thompson; San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft, 1878
Also contains subscription materials for: Linus Pierpont Brockett, The Conquest of Turkey, and J. E. Chambliss, The Life and Labors of David Livingstone

While most canvassing books sought subscribers for a single work, publishers occasionally advertised multiple titles in a single book. Sometimes, as with this canvassing book, most of book is dedicated to the primary title, the other two titles only being briefly represented, although each title does has its own, separate subscription pages.

Combination Canvassing Outfit

Fairy-Land and Mother Goose
N.p., c1901
Also contains subscription materials for: The Chimney Corner Story Book; Frederick Lonnkvist, The Child's Story of the Animal World; Charlotte Yonge, Happy Sundays with the Bible and the Children; A Journey Around the World Including Interesting Adventures in Many Land with Professor Glee and His Class of Young People in Their Travels; The International Book of Song; Charles Morris, The Popular Compendium of Useful Information

This is a combination canvassing outfit (also called a Grand Combination Outfit). It represents multiple titles together with examples of their bindings and sample texts. Sometimes these outfits had leather handles for convenient carrying. The format was used almost exclusively for children's books, although some general books "for the family" might also be included, as in this outfit. The order begins with books for babies and toddlers, and moves through titles directed at ever-older audiences. Their range might include entertaining stories and poems, religious works, and educational texts. These books were often pitched to mothers, who, of course, sought only the best for their families and were also thought to have primary responsibility for their intellectual improvement.

Dos à dos Canvassing Book

Joseph A. Dacus
A Guide to Success, with Forms for Business & Society
St. Louis: Scammel; et al., 1881
Bound dos à dos with
Frederick Saunders, ed.
A Festival of Art, Poetry and Song
St. Louis: Scammel; et al., 1880

This canvassing book consists of two titles, bound dos dos, that is, back to back, and each upside down with respect to the other. Subscriber pages are found in the middle, between the two titles. If a prospective buyer were not interested in one, the agent could simply turn the canvassing book over to offer a very different work, which might be more attractive.

Complete Text Canvassing Book

Hoy R. Orton and Warren H. Sadler
Orton & Sadler's Business Calculator and Accountants Assistant
Baltimore: W. H. Sadler, 1881

This unusual canvassing book contains a complete text as well as the normal broadside advertisement and subscription leaves. Presumably the publisher thought it advisable to show prospective buyers everything that this edition contained, since it is an enlarged edition of a work that had already been sold in another form. In this case, completeness can not diminish the work's market, since it is a reference book, not a one-time read.

Canvassing Book with Soft Cloth Binding

William Shuler Harris
Sermons by the Devil
Philadelphia: P. W. Ziegler, c1904

Some early canvassing books appeared in limp leather covers or paper wrappers. But almost all later canvassing outfits have regular bindings of cloth or leather, or a combination of the two, over boards, intended to give prospective purchasers a clear idea of what the actual book will look like. This use of a soft binding may represent a publisher's attempt to reduce the cost of producing canvassing outfits. However, the publisher's "Notice to Subscribers" states: We have taken only a few pages from the full book and have stitched them together with a temporary light cover for the convenience of our agents. By examination you can see exactly what the full book will be like. So, this may simply have been an attempt to reduce the book's weight and bulk, thereby making it easier to carry. Or, perhaps, both considerations played a role here.

A Library in a Volume

The Combination Prospectus, Comprising Specimen Pages of One Hundred and Fifty Highly Instructive and Entertaining Books
Philadelphia: John E. Potter, [1874]

This canvassing book contains a price list, subscriber leaves, and the title and sample pages from one hundred and fifty titles--the publisher's "line." Two sample spines give purchasers an idea of the kinds of bindings to expect. Unlike individual canvassing books, which offered prospective buyers several binding choices, these samples allow purchasers no choices at all.

Book in Parts

Leo De Colange, ed.
A Tour of the World
New York: University Press Company of New York, c1896

Most canvassers were selling complete works, but publishers occasionally broke down some large and expensive works into more easily affordable pieces, to be sold as parts in an effort to reach wide audiences.

The work will be completed in twelve single sections at twenty-five cents each, and twenty-eight double sections at fifty cents each . . .

The ultimate cost of the work, of course, is high: Seventeen dollars just for the parts in paper covers. The additional cost probably kept many purchasers from having their copies of this work bound.

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