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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Special Report

The Big Sell

More than anything, it was the book agent’s unrelenting persistence to make a sale that seems to have brought the industry universal public disdain. Newspapers of the day carried regular anecdotes from distraught readers who fell into the clutches of a determined agent. When Manitoba’s Winnipeg Daily Times declared book agents along with mosquitoes, houseflies, and mad dogs as the summer’s worst pests, there were probably few homeowners who would have disagreed. It is no wonder the Brandon [Manitoba] Mail concluded that there “is probably no class of workers … that has received more abuse, has had more ill-natured flings thrust at it” than the book agent.

The book agent’s unrelenting persistence to make a sale brought the industry universal public disdain.

In the end, Elizabeth Lindley had to give up the door-to-door book business after only a month’s trial. She seems to have largely ignored her training manual. Several times the publisher made an honest attempt to assist her—he substituted different titles for her to peddle and directed her to different parts of the state where the homeowners might be more receptive. Still, she never came close to making the $35 a week she had been promised. But at no point did Lindley demonstrate the energy, pertinacity, and shrewdness that successful agents required. She took many a customer’s rebuke personally, not realizing it was only a comment by a person prejudiced against her calling and determined not to be influenced by her representations. Perhaps her young age was the problem. If she had more experience in the ways of the world, she might have been better equipped to judge people’s character and exploit their vulnerabilities.

Elizabeth Lindley’s efforts were not completely in vain, however. Through her little venture in book canvassing, Lindley met her future husband.

1 Endnotes: Elizabeth Lindley, The Diary of a Book-Agent, New York: Broadway Publishing Co., 1912, pg. 3.

Jeffrey Murray is a Senior Archivist at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. He is the author of Terra Nostra: The Stories behind Canada’s Maps, 1550-1950, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

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