"Agents Wanted": Subscription Publishing in America

Online Exhibition
University of Pennsylvania
Go to online exhibition

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.

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.

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.