When I was in college, I worked as an intern during my summer and holiday breaks for San Francisco book publisher Chronicle Books. One thing I observed while working there is how much of the publishing process is about marketing and selling the books. I sometimes wondered whether, if I had lived in an earlier time, there would be more focus on the art of writing and less on selling books. It took me a while to get it through my thick head that writing is for the writers. Writers need publishers to help them with design, distribution, publicity, and marketing. Oh, yes. I almost forgot — and editing, too.
Now that I am a bookseller, I have been able to see firsthand some of the things nineteenth-century American publishers did to market and publicize their books. Turns out that they weren’t all that different from their 20th century counterparts. Read on:
Sometime in 1886 or 1887, W.C. King and W.P. Derby published a book called Campfire Sketches and Battlefield Echoes or ’61-5. According to the authors,
“Other war books have preceded this, but they have been for the most part purely historical and statistical, or the experiences and observations of a single individual, thus portraying but a glimpse of the most gigantic, thrilling, and bloody drama of the nineteenth century. Neither time, pains, nor expense has been spared in gathering the material for this volume, and it comes fresh from the heart and pen of more than three hundred veteran soldiers of the rank and file, both North and South. . . A war so gigantic, continuing through four long, weary years, so costly in blood and treasure, reaching with its sore bereavement into the peaceful quietude of almost every home circle of our land, attaches to this volume an individual and personal interest without parallel in the whole range of war literature” (Preface).
Despite the compelling content, books like this didn’t sell themselves. The publisher, Lindsay & Co. of Boston, Massachusetts, needed to sell these books, and to do so it enlisted “agents” who could hit the pavement and sell the book, perhaps to booksellers, perhaps to individual customers. Some time ago I came across an advertisement from the publisher, who sought agents, “to sell this wonderful book,” entreating them to work for Lindsay & Co. by promising, “Big money for live agents.”
A single sheet measuring 6.5″ x 10.5″, printed on both sides, the recto of the advertisement features the cover illustration from the book:
The verso features the frontispiece engraving from the book, entitled “The Union in Peril” and tells us the illustration was “engraved exclusively for Echoes of ’61-5.”
I was rather fascinated with the allegorical frontispiece. The “Key to the Engraving” reads:
The whole outbreak of the rebellion is here represented. Note the separation in the earth. President Lincoln is seen calling for assistance. The Union is in peril. Gen. Scott stands at his left hand. The wealth of the North is poured out at his feet. The young man with the musket represents the loyalty and personal sacrifice for our country . . . At the left of the engraving is represented the Confederate side. The earth is seen cracking — attempted separation of the Union. There stands Jeff Davis while the mob tears the Union flag to shreds. Buchanan feigns to be asleep while Floyd steals the Treasury. The copper-head snake coiled about a palm tree is throwing its venom out upon justice, who stands with balances and drawn sword, warning the Confederacy to abandon their efforts to sever the Union. In the center stands the proud figure Goddess of Liberty, supporting the stars and stripes, overshadowed by the American Eagle, trampling under foot the cat-o’-nine tails and shackles of Slavery.”
That’s a lot of information to portray in a single engraving.
It’s interesting to think about the various in which earlier American publishers tried to sell their books. That’s what made me fall in love with this little piece of bookselling ephemera.
I have seen publishers’ subscription books before, usually small booklets filled out by book agents with the names of customers who, perhaps after looking at a salesman’s dummy book, agreed to purchase the real McCoy upon publication. I have also seen several publisher’s dummy books, but this is the first publisher advertisement for book agents that I have (in my almost four-year tenure as a bookseller) ever seen, so I thought I’d share it with you here. Have any of you longtime collectors or booksellers seen advertisements for publisher’s agents?
If you’d like more information about this item, feel free to send me an email at chris AT bookhuntersholiday DOT com or click here to see the complete description at my website.
See you in the stacks!