"Agents Wanted:" Subscription Publishing in America
"How to Sell"

An increasingly wary public pushed book canvassers to adopt increasingly sophisticated door-to-door selling techniques. Whether in response to frustrated agents, unable to sell books, or to soft sales, publishers supplied their agents with general technique manuals as well as brochures containing detailed "patter," or speeches, for selling particular titles. Publishers also went to great lengths to obtain testimonials, or recommendations, for their works, and printed these as well. These, in combination with visually exciting covers, popular writers, and scintillating topics, helped make sales easier for prospecting agents.

General "How to Sell"

Agent's Companion: A Manual of Confidential Instructions

Pamphlets intended to educate book agents in the manner and process of selling books through canvassing speak, for instance, of the virtues of subscription books. "Almost invariably . . . works of solid information," they circulate "principally among that class who seldom or never enter a bookstore, who live remote from cities, and who . . . would be destitute entirely of the wisdom which their pages impart." They describe techniques for obtaining subscriptions, telling the agent to "first make . . . the acquaintance of a few of the leading men and induce . . . them to subscribe, which he can easily do, if his book is worthy, and he has the right social and persuasive qualities." The agent must "paint vividly upon the imagination an impression that the book is of a deeply interesting character, and filled with useful information." Standard salesmanship, this pamphlet advises "a pleasant manner of approaching men," never losing one's temper, and perseverance and system, "going at it as . . . [at] a day's work, losing no time." Agents learn that "[h]undreds of persons will subscribe when books are presented to them at home, who never would think of purchasing at a regular bookstore." The virtues of subscription over direct sales, "because most persons are more ready to engage to pay the money at a future time for an article than to purchase it now," lead to advice to "rely principally on men of moderate means and small libraries . . . and especially upon mechanics and the farming population." Women--"the ladies"--"will often buy when the men will not, and indeed, it is often the case, that a . . . lady takes more interest in books than her husband."

J. Walter Stoops
The Art of Canvassing, or, the Experience of a Practical Canvasser
New York: Printed for the Author, 1857

This early book of advice consists essentially of ten rules that successful book agents should follow. First and foremost is to pay close attention to one's external appearance and manner. The author entered the "profession" in 1851 "more as a means of mental and bodily exercise than as a lucrative pursuit." He claims to have been so successful that he feels obliged to share his insights with other prospective book agents. Stoops went on to compile and publish Gems of Poetry: Containing a Collection of Popular Parlor Ballads, and the Business Cards of the Leading Hotels and Mercantile Firms in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a single work which clearly joins together business and pleasure.

The Book Agent: A Manual of Confidential Instructions
[N.p., n.d. (late nineteenth century)]

This little pamphlet provides the harried book agent with specific speeches to use in answering a variety of objections.

"How to Sell" Specific Texts

"How to Sell Wealth by the Wayside"
"How to Sell 'All Abourd for Sunrise Lands'"
Two brochures
[N.p., n.d. (late nineteenth century)]

These brochures were included as part of the canvassing outfits for each of the books to which they refer. Written specifically for the works being canvassed, they provide both text and stage directions for selling that title. They are similar to the sales speech slips often bound into the actual canvassing book for the agent to memorize and then discard. The presentation, or "Description," is for the canvassing book, or "Prospectus," only. Agents are warned not to use it with the complete work. Interestingly, these brochures contain no reference to the publisher or anything else that would identify them if lost or misplaced. However, both of them look very similar and may have originated with the firm of Fairbanks, Palmer, and Company, of New York and Chicago.

"How to Sell" the Binding

Handbill from
John Rusk
The Authentic Life of T. DeWitt Talmage
Chicago and Philadelphia: Monarch Book, 1902

This advertisement is aimed at convincing book agents to sell a specific kind of binding material. The advertisement claims "universal demand" for and "greater satisfaction" from Texoderm bindings. The primary reason agents would have touted it, of course, is because Texoderm bindings yield them "a larger profit."

Provided by the Publisher

Frank S. Dobbins
Error's Chains: How Forged and Broken
New York: Stanhope Publishing House, 1883

Printed testimonials, a popular means of convincing prospective purchasers of the worthiness of the work they were perusing, were generally obtained by giving the work to a variety of well-known and influential individuals and requesting their opinions about the work. Whether or not the testimonial writers felt an obligation to speak kindly of the work so generously bestowed upon them, one can assume that much of the glowing praise comes from the distinction of being asked for one's opinion. Publishers still put such blurbs on books today, and for exactly the same reason.

Obtained by the Agent

C. B. Beach, ed.
The Student's Cyclopedia
New York and Chicago; C. B. Beach, 1899

Changes in educational methods around the turn of the century created a demand by schools for reference books like this encyclopedia to supplement the textbooks used by students. The testimonials in this work appear to have been solicited from Michigan educators and then compiled by a resourceful agent prior to canvassing the work to local teachers and school boards. The success of this approach is revealed by the one hundred and sixty-one subscriptions entered in the subscription pages of this outfit.

Subscription Leaves with Recommendations of
Prominent Individuals

H. A. Lewis
Hidden Treasures, or, why Some Succeed While Others Fail
Springfield, Mass.: King, Richardson, 1888

The owner of this canvassing book on how to be successful was a savvy agent. Even though the publisher had included numerous printed testimonials in the canvassing book, the agent took it upon himself to obtain many additional handwritten testimonials, as well. These include three separate letters of recommendation and five recommendations written on five different subscription leaves. They are meant to impress subscribers, whose names were thus mingled with those of the leaders of their community.

Topical and Visual Appeal

Charles Morris, ed.
The San Francisco Calamity by Earthquake and Fire
Springfield, Mass.: Hampden Publishing, c1906

One way to sell works is to concentrate on current events: timeliness is often an enticement to buy. With timely topics, the sooner the work is in print, the greater its audience. Disasters, for one, have always held a fascination for the general reading public. Publications about San Francisco's disasterous earthquake, commemorated by this and several other titles, relied heavily on illustrations to attract buyers. Recently, Americans have had the same experience as publishers have cashed in by commemorating, with lavish illustrations, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Ernest Albert Bell
Fighting the Traffin in Young Girls, or, War on the White Slave Trade

Frightening people can sometimes work as a successful sales ploy. Both the binding and the "How to sell" brochure employ scare tactics to sell this sensationalizing work on prostitution. The "How to sell" brochure enjoins agents to note "that any man or woman, youth or maiden, if they knew what this book tells them, may be saved from years of sorrow and disgrace." Ignoring its message means that prospective buyers may endanger themselves and their families. The work also attempts to sell itself through the choice of serious authors whose names and affiliations are on the title page to impress prospective buyers. Finally, of course, the thrill of reading about prostitution and international white slave traders, though left inexplicit, is perhaps the greatest sales ploy that undergirds this exploitative publication.

Phineas Taylor Barnum
The Life of Barnum the World-Renowned Showman
Philadelphia: Globe Bible Publishing, n.d.

This canvassing book combines the autobiography of a fascinating subject, P. T. Barnum, with an enticing cover, a promising title page, and numerous incidents from his life, profusely illustrated, to create a work sure to pique a prospective buyer's interest. It assumes that we all want to know more about Tom Thumb and the White Elephant.

<—Variant Formats| Table of Contents| "What to Sell"—>