"Agents Wanted:" Subscription Publishing in America
A Brief History of Subscription Publishing

Two precursors to subscription publishing come together in nineteenth century America. The first, chapbooks, were cheaply printed works with crude images and paper covers sold door to door. The second were works written by authors for an economically privileged audience. Well-to-do patrons, to whom such works might be dedicated, or subscribers who paid in advance for the opportunity to acquire a work: such an audience was able to make a publisher's investment secure even before a book was printed and sold.

Subscription publishing became an accepted method of publication during the seventeenth century. As a way of acknowledging subscribers, authors included printed lists of subscribers in the work, often at the beginning, in place of or in addition to a dedication. The works typically sold by subscription in the seventeenth century were atlases, geographies, and histories, especially Bible histories. But important works of English literature were also published in this manner. Among them was, for example, the first illustrated edition of Milton's Paradise Lost, published by the great London publisher, Jacob Tonson in 1688. Its subscriber list names more than five hundred prominent individuals.

By the end of the eighteenth century, however, a variety of abuses had led to decline in the subscription method of publishing in England. During the nineteenth century, the old forms of subscription publishing gave way in America to new a form, which joined together the roles of publisher and peddler.

Subscription Publishing of Expensive Works In England

John Minsheu
Ductor in Linguas, or The Guide into Tongues
London: John Brown, 1617
Rare Book Collection

Some authorities claim this work, a polyglot dictionary, is the first use of subscription publication in England. Tired of dealing with his fickle patron, the author asked the public to underwrite the book's costs by subscribing to the work prior to publication.

Fanny Burney
Camilla, or A Picture of Youth
London: T. Payne, and T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1796
Singer-Mendenhall Collection

By the eighteenth century, more and more popular works were published by subscription. This is one of several copies of Camilla that belonged to the Duchess of York, a subscriber, along with Jane Austen, Edmund Burke, Maria Edgeworth, and David Hume. The subscriber's list consumes thirty-eight pages. One can be certain that it was poured over by those whose names were, and were not, included, whether or not one was actually interested in reading the novel. In many cases, those seeking to move up the social ladder, and with sufficient resources at their disposal, would willingly subscribe to a publication just to see their name in proximity with royalty and other illustrious persons of the age.

Subscription Publishing of Expensive Works In America

Samuel Willard
A Compleat Body of Divinity
Boston: B. Green and S. Kneeland for B. Eliot and D. Henchman, 1726
Rare Book Collection

In the early eighteenth century, subscriptions begins to be used in the colonies (which had less disposable income than the mother country) as a way of underwriting the production of books that, in England, would have been published simply as part of the trade. Benjamin Franklin's father, Josiah, and his brother James, are among those listed as subscribers to this work.

England and Europe/America
Chapmen, Peddlers, and Specifically Book Peddlers

Death & Burial of Cock Robin
Otley [England]: Yorkshire J. S. Publishing & Stationery, [ca 1850]
Rare Book Collection
The History of Tom Thumb
Wilmington: John Adams, 1797
Rare Book Collection
These chapbooks exemplify the type of material sold by chapmen-peddlers or itinerant merchants who traveled from place to place hawking their wares. Some of these vendors included books among their varied inventory. Others sold books exclusively. Small, lightweight, and cheap, chapbooks were immensely popular. By the nineteenth century, some were even sold with color illustrations. However, unlike hand-colored illustrations in expensive books, watercolors here were quickly brushed on the pages, with little attention to lines and borders. Like the primers used by schoolchildren, chapbooks were printed in thousands of copies, but are now quite rare. Most were literally read to death, as the condition of this copy of The History of Tom Thumb illustrates.

Matthew Carey and Parson Weems

William Guthrie
A New System of Modern Geography
Philadelphia: Printed by Mathew Carey, 1794
Rare Book Collection

In the eighteenth century, American printers printed essentially for local audiences, which limited them to standard fare and to works of local interest. Mathew Carey, however, envisioned a broad audience for his publications. In the 1790s, while also trying to create a distribution network that would make his publications available throughout the country, Carey sought other ways to sell his works, including subscription. Guthrie's Geography was one of the titles that Carey sold in part-though not exclusively- through subscriptions. These were collected by his agent (also a new development), the legendary Parson Mason Locke Weems. Weems, himself an author, wrote a Life of Washington in which he propagated the myth of Washington and the cherry tree. Carey never made a real profit from the network he set up, due to the costs of making contacts and the losses from lost and damaged materials. However, he did show the feasibility of such networks, especially if transportation methods could be improved.

John Sanderson
Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence
Philadelphia: R. W. Pomeroy, 1823

Sanderson's Biography is the earliest canvassing book in the collection. Its sample leaves of text are followed by sample illustrations and subscription leaves at the end. The half-broadside advertisement at the book's beginning has been annotated with additional binding information to reflect the other volume in the set. Sanderson's Biography was an extremely popular work in the first half of the nineteenth century, regularly reprinted every few years.

Benjamin Franklin
The Works of Benjamin Franklin ... with Notes and a Life of the Author by Jared Sparks
Boston: Hilliard Gray, 1840
Rare Book Collection

Unlike most canvassing books, this early example consists exclusively of illustrations to be included in the Works and subscription leaves. While illustrations were generally used as a selling point, later outfits generally included sample text, the title page, and other information about the work, as well. Franklin, presumably, spoke for himself.

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