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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
Publisher’s promo offering liberal terms to agents credit: The Colored American
Throughout most of the late 19th century, how-to pamphlets were the chief means by which publishing houses trained their door-to-door agents credit: Jeffrey S. Murray

University students were in such high demand that some publishers placed special recruiters on campuses. Regaling the college boys with tales of great profits and ‘good times in the field,’ the recruiter signed up as many students as he could since he usually received a small commission for each book the students sold. In the last days of the term, the recruiter would return to the college and give the greenhorn agents their training,” … putting them through a drill calculated to qualify any receptive person for a successful career in that line of work.” He showed the students how to hold the sales prospectus so that the book could be seen no matter which way the customer turned. This left one hand free to turn pages and to point out items of interest. Some of the more dexterous learnt to turn the pages with the hand holding the book so as to leave the other free for eloquent gestures.

By far the most effective tool in the sales kit was the prospectus.

Agents without educational qualifications or the special training offered by the campus recruiters could still sell books, but they usually had to work a ‘graft,’ as it was called. 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. One female agent in Toronto, Canada, was particularly inventive. She called on housewives during the day and offered them a $20-book package that was supposedly endorsed by the Board of Education. Apparently, she sold a number of the pricey packages before the Board could warn its citizens that it had authorized no one to make such a claim.

Graft agents eventually brought the door-to-door book business into disrepute. “They have no liking for the work,” admitted one book agent to a reporter for Toronto’s Globe newspaper, “and [they] go at it very often in a spirit of desperation—not caring who they offend, or whether they leave a favourable impression or not, so long as they can make a few dollars.”

Successful agents—whether honest or indifferent—developed a natural gift for talking, for embracing an extravagant vocabulary, and for inflating the value of the work they were selling. Even if it took as much as a half-day, agents were advised to keep talking until the potential customer added his name to the subscription list.

Elizabeth Lindley learned first-hand how well this technique worked. She was not having much success selling her books when a female acquaintance offered to show her some tricks. Her tutor had never peddled books—she usually sold cheap cosmetics—yet she was able to sell in a few hours what would have taken Lindley all week. Lindley was amazed at how easily her tutor adapted herself to the person and the situation and struck up a conversation. “If interviewing an Eastern man, she was from the East, if a Western, she was from the West,” relates Lindley. “Her place of birth was changed so many times to suit the occasion that I think it embraced every State in the Union; while her parents were English, Irish, French or German, as the situation required.”

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