"Agents Wanted:" Subscription Publishing in America


Nineteenth-century America saw the rise of a new kind of subscription publishing and a new approach to marketing. Once a relatively genteel means of seeking financial support for an expensive publication project with uncertain sales prospects, subscription bookselling expanded during the nineteenth century into a door-to-door solicitation of commitments to purchase particular titles not just prior to publication, as had been the case with earlier subscription ventures, but at any point in the publication process. This uniquely American publishing phenomenon grew out of a confluence of economic circumstances and opportunities. Through the eighteenth century, bookselling, printing, and publishing had not been clearly distinguished from each other. In the early part of the nineteenth century, however, publishers came to dominate both printers and booksellers by their ability to capitalize the entire book trade. Mainstream publishers generally viewed themselves as engaged primarily in the production of books and not mere commodities, yet they were affected by the same social and economic pressures that affected the country as a whole.

A period of brisk expansion and change, the nineteenth century saw the population of the country shift westward, away from previous centers of publishing and distribution. Upwardly mobile Americans viewed literacy, through which they learned about the wider world and developed as individuals and citizens, as essential to their mobility. Moreover, a developing American identity required nurture. Works by American authors which spoke on American themes and to American concerns could easily be marketed, publishers hoped, to such an audience. Improvements in transportation and print technology accompanied these social and cultural changes over the course of the century, making all types of reading matter increasingly quicker and cheaper to produce and distribute. Economies of scale, made possible by new printing technologies, in conjunction with cheaper paper and binding materials, greatly reduced the costs of producing large and inexpensive editions of books. Stereotyped plates both reduced the expense of reprinting and allowed for the distribution of plates to all parts of the country. New and cheaper methods of illustration increased their use in all forms of print, making them more appealing to prospective customers.

All of these factors supported the viability of publishing as an industry. Recognizing the existence of new opportunities, savvy capitalists were eager to exploit what they saw as largely untapped markets hungry-even if they had not yet realized it-for books, magazines, and newspapers. They transformed and refined subscription publishing into a mechanism to reach this audience. Subscription publishers regarded books as merchandise to be produced, advertised, and sold like any other product. The works they sold dealt with popular subjects and were meant to have wide appeal. They bypassed the passive marketing of their books through booksellers, located mainly in the larger towns and cities and unavailable to or unused by the vast majority of Americans at that time, and went directly to the public with their product. Employing book agents, whose sole job was to sell their work, they supplied them with the apparatus-incomplete copies of the prospective work, referred to as canvassing books-and taught them the sales techniques needed to sell their books. In this way subscription publishers resembled many other American entrepreneurs of the time whose agents sought to convince the public of the desirability of their products. Over time, subscription publishing became a successful and profitable part of the publishing industry. Established mainstream publishers, and even some department stores, proceeded to get in the act by starting their own subscription publishing departments.

This exhibition explores what has long been a relatively unknown and inadequately documented aspect of the American publishing industry in the nineteenth century. The resources of the Zinman Collection, a small portion of which is seen here, will assist scholars in reassessing the story of this industry's growth and of its significance in American life.

Lynne Farrington
Curator of Printed Books


Agents Wanted celebrates a collection and its collector. The collection comprises nearly 3,000 American canvassing books, chiefly from the 19th century. And it is growing. There is quite simply nothing else like it anywhere. The core of the collection was formed by the Connecticut book dealer, Robert Seymour, and acquired from him by the New York omnivore, Michael Zinman, who has continued adding to it with his customary Úlan. In turn, the Penn Library acquired the collection from Zinman. I assume that its peregrinations are over. Here at Penn we call it the Zinman Collection of Canvassing Books.

Like so much of Michael's collecting, the canvassing books are a case study in critical mass theory: the difference between two and two hundred is interesting; the difference between two hundred and two thousand is important and of scholarly value. They are also a case study in the Zinman theory of value: your coal are my diamonds. The overlooked, the undervalued, the disparaged, the discarded: seen with fresh eyes, they are revelations. These, anyway, are a couple of the lessons we have learned from Michael. A very canny collector. The Library is grateful to him for his interest, his support, and his counsel.

Bill Helfand, a Penn alumnus and friend of Michael's, served as our angel in maneuvering the collection to Philadelphia. Keith Arbour, also a Penn alumnus and the person that wrote the published catalogue of much of the collection, was kind and helpful at every stage. They both have our thanks and appreciation.

Lynne Farrington has overseen the collection since it arrived at Penn and has labored mightily to make it accessible. This exhibit is her exhibit, her chance to share with a wider public some of the things she has discovered along the way. Dan Traister assisted her in writing and editing the text. Andrea Gottschalk tackled the design and installation of the show with imagination and taste. For the good efforts of a fine staff, the Library is, as always, grateful and fortunate.

Michael Ryan
Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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