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

In the early part of the nineteenth century, subscription publishers concentrated on history and religion, especially biographies of sacred, clerical, and historical figures. However, by the 1850s, topics of contemporary interest begin to dominate their lists. By the1860s, the Civil War had become all engrossing. Abbott's 1862 History of the Civil War in America is only one of many such titles printed during and after the war. It continued to be a popular subject for subscription publishers well into the twentieth century. Subscription publishing slowed during the Civil War, but flourished in the years directly following it. Publishers adapted subscription sales to many new subject matters the proliferation of books devoted to the Civil War threatened to saturate their markets.

By the late 1860s, a variety of books--on topics such as New York City, farming, and eminent men and women--had entered the mix. The 1870s saw renewed interest in the American West and foreign lands. Literature and contemporary events became a sizable portion of the titles published for subscription sales. The field explodes in the 1880s and 1890s with numerous works targeted at women on topics such as health, domestic life, and etiquette, and at children. Campaign biographies and election guides sold by subscription only were popular during this period, as well. Most works were sold as single volumes, although publishers advertise increasing numbers of sets, especially of literature and reference works.

By the twentieth century, the world of subscription publishing had changed its focus. Popular and sensational works intended for the general public gave way to those with an educational emphasis. Subscription publishing closely identified itself with the new educational movement in this country, which sought to expand the types of reading materials available to students. Most subscription publishers of this period concentrated on a single genre: encyclopedias; sets of literature (for children or adults); professional publications (law and medical books); expensive, limited editions of art and literature; technical and vocational manuals. Some publishers, of course, continued to publish popular works, histories, and Bibles, much as they had done before.

Knowledge and Self-Improvement

Culture and Religion

The World--Past & Present, Near & Far