What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“PROPOSED to be published, a PAMPHLET.”
James Johnston inserted a subscription notice for “a PAMPHLET … entitled ‘Religious and Moral Observations selected from the Writings of approved Authors’” in the January 13, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette. He did not promote a product already available for customers to purchase; instead, like many other eighteenth-century publishers, he presented a proposal in order to gauge public interest in the pamphlet. It would go to press only once a sufficient number of “subscribers” pledged to purchase it.
Publishing by subscription significantly reduced the financial risk. No printer wanted to invest time and materials only to produce a book or pamphlet that never sold enough copies to turn at least a small profit. With that in mind, Johnston instructed that readers “willing to encourage” the proposed pamphlet “may send in their names to the printer of this paper.” As names arrived, he would compile a subscription list (which printers sometimes inserted in proposed publications as a means of acknowledging patrons who supported the project). Johnston did not specify a publication date. Instead, he stated, “The publication will commence as soon as a sufficient number have sent in their names to defray the first expence of publishing.” Although that would not cover all of his costs, the printer considered it enough to indicate that other buyers would eventually step forward to acquire the pamphlet. For initial subscribers “the price of the pamphlet will be two shillings sterling.” Subsequent buyers could expect to pay a higher price. Offering a bargain to those who invested in the project early often helped to stimulate interest.
As part of his effort to promote the pamphlet, Johnston offered a brief description and outline. He estimated that it would be approximately sixty-four pages or “four sheets in 8vo. [octavo].” (This meant that a single sheet was folded in half three times in order to form eight leaves that were one-eight the size of the original sheet. With text printed on both sides of each leaf, this produced sixteen pages per sheet. Four sheets yielded sixty-four pages.) As the title suggested, these sixty-four pages would contain “Religious and Moral Observations” intended to bring together “the opinions and most enforcing arguments of different eminent authors.” The passages would be carefully organized “under proper Heads” and the names of the authors or books included for further reference. The pamphlet would also include “original Notes” intended to “illustrate and enforce the several passages.”
Johnston published the subscription notice to determine interest in the pamphlet, but he also planned to use the pamphlet to assess interest in “a larger publication of the same nature.” He considered the pamphlet a “specimen.” If consumers reacted positively, he would publish a more extensive version. The combination of the initial subscription notice and, eventually, sales of the pamphlet (if the subscription notice proved successful) constituted market research to guide his decisions about printing a substantial volume.