May 19

An advertisement in Liberty Hall, Cincinnati on this date in 1807 announced the forthcoming publication of a book which was bound to titillate the frontier population: “For Publishing by Subscription, in one volume royal duodecimo, The Long and Interesting Trial of Charles Vattier.” Written by two “Gentlemen of Law Knowledge,” this volume took advantage of the widespread public interest in the sensational trial of Mr. Vattier, who was accused of burglary and larceny. The publisher of this book—considered to be the first non-utilitarian book to be published in Ohio—guaranteed that the book would be printed at the earliest opportunity and would be set in small pica type and that there would not be an additional charge even if it was necessary to exceed the 250 pages originally planned.

During the 19th century, there would have been few publishers willing to risk their capital without assuring a first printing that would cover their costs. The procedure followed in most instances was to advertise a title in the newspaper, and then send out agents into the hinterland, each armed with a prospectus in which the subscriber signed his name, agreeing to pay the price requested upon receipt of the copy. Many of the books produced in such a manner were histories—local, state, and national—and of course religious texts were exceedingly popular. It was rare indeed that subscribers were offered the opportunity to purchase books which would eventually become valuable. One of the exceptions was the edition of The Birds of America, by the naturalist John James Audubon, which was issued in one hundred parts at a dollar a part.

A Connecticut Yankee, Henry Howe, who had been born to a bookseller’s family and who had walked the length and breadth of New York state two times collecting historical data for a subscription book, came to Ohio early in 1846 and repeated the process. Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio, a 581-page book, sold eighteen thousand copies at three dollars, a record which not even General Grant’s Memoirs could exceed. On the strength of this venture Howe settled in Ohio where he became the leading publisher in the west of subscription books.

Howe wrote in the preface of one of his subscription books, Travel and Adventures, published in 1853, his philosophy as a publisher of subscription selling: ‘This, like our other publications is intended to be disposed of by subscription only. This mode of circulating literature, as practiced in this country, is peculiarly an American invention. In Europe it is adopted to assure, in advance, the expense of costly works—with us, as a method—for the convenience of the purchasers—of engaging sales after a book has been issued. . . . for it should be remembered that the regular book merchant—the trader in ideas—is the very last man who emigrates—the very last to be established in a young community. Taking the whole land through, doubtless a thousand establishments have been reared to supply the animal appetite for liquid stimulus to one erected to minister to the intellect, by the sale of books; and further, millions of our people never in their lives have even entered a bookstore, and millions upon millions do not annually average the possession of a single new book. With all our self-congratulated civilization, the mass of even our most enlightened communities is far behind a proper standard of cultivation, as is illustrated by the universal desire for tinsel and display. . . . In fact. Ignorance everywhere rears his stupid front, and among the best weapons with which to vanquish him are books, and in the interior, with a vast number, the habit of obtaining and of using these will not be acquired unless brought to their very doors.”

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