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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Special Report

The Big Sell

Publishers’ promos offered potential book agents ‘liberal’ terms and widely emphasized the ease of selling their titles. credit: Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library
Publishers’ promos offered potential book agents ‘liberal’ terms and widely emphasized the ease of selling their titles. credit: Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library
Publishers’ promos offered potential book agents ‘liberal’ terms and widely emphasized the ease of selling their titles. credit: Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library
Publishers’ promos offered potential book agents ‘liberal’ terms and widely emphasized the ease of selling their titles. credit: Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library

In the hands of a skilled agent, the subscription list was an effective sales tool. “When every argument has failed,” explained one how-to pamphlet written for agents, “people will sometimes change their mind, and wish a copy, on being shown the names of people who have taken the work.” This trick certainly had its intended effect on one reporter for Toronto’s Globe. On seeing the subscription list for a title a book agent had pitched to him, the reporter admitted that, if he refused to put his name on the list, he was sure he would end up feeling like “a Philistine, a social pariah, an uncultured boor, and a person of no account whatever.”

Some ‘graft’ agents sold books by the yard; others made innuendoes to a risqué content; some worked rich old ladies; others prowled the factory floor.

Most publishers also provided their agents, especially those like Elizabeth Lindley who were new to the business, with a how-to pamphlet or brochure that offered secrets on door-to-door selling. “It is very easy to get orders,” a naïve Lindley thought on reading her pamphlet for the first time. “All I have to do is … follow the instructions closely … and almost every person I see will subscribe.”

Despite their intended purpose, the pamphlets generally gave agents little help in targeting books to specific customers—they naturally presumed that any agent should be able to sell any title to any customer. The brochures also took great pride in showing agents how to be deceitful and cunning. For example, they universally warned agents to hide their prospectus until they gained entry into a customer’s home. If potential customers were to realize they had a book agent standing on their doorstep, there was a good chance they would not answer the door.

One female agent in St. Louis took this advice to heart. Appearing at a door dressed in the latest fashion and not a hint of her trade visible, she was readily admitted into the house. After she had passed some pleasant conversation, she deftly lifted her ankle-length skirt to produce a leather case containing the works of Supreme Court Judge David Brewer in three different bindings. The case was apparently hanging from a strap hitched around her waist. “How she manages to ‘locomote’ with this encumbrance hanging about her is her own secret,” commented the St. Louis Star. “Those who have watched her walk away from the house declared that she is as graceful in stride as if she were not carrying at least six pounds of literature, hung in a way that ought sadly to interfere with her gait.”

It seems the more successful agents were those who had a rounded education and who could talk to customers on any subject. College students were a particular favourite, as were attractive young ladies. Indeed, bookselling was one of the few 19th-century vocations where a woman could expect equal compensation to her male counterpart. A female agent could always use her “beauty and winning ways” better than any male agent to tackle “the blushing young bachelor and the susceptible young man,” as one contemporary newspaper account put it. After all, “no single man would dare to refuse a pretty charming woman.”

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