What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“PROPOSALS For Re-printing by SUBSCRIPTION.”
In the summer of 1768 James Adams, a printer in Wilmington, Delaware, advertised a product that was not yet available for sale, one that might not ever hit the market. He wished to reprint a book originally published in London, William Bates’s Harmony of the Divine Attributes in the Contrivance and Accomplishment of Man’s Redemption by the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet taking on this enterprise would be a significant investment for the printer, so he first sought to gauge interest and incite demand by issuing a subscription notice.
Printers throughout the colonies regularly distributed subscription notices before committing to publishing books. In them, they described the proposed publication, both the contents and the material aspects, and asked prospective customers interested in purchasing the book to become subscribers who paid a portion in advance and the remainder upon delivery. For instance, the extensive subtitle of Harmony of the Divine Attributes provided a general outline – “How the WISDOM, MERCY, JUSTICE, HOLINESS, POWER and TRUTH, of GOD are glorified in that Great and Blessed Work” – for the twenty-three sections of the book. Furthermore, it included an index to guide readers to specific topics. In terms of the material qualities of the book, Adams stated that it “shall be printed on a good letter and paper, and will be contained in one large volume octavo, making upwards of five hundred pages.” Adams invited potential subscribers to contact him for even more information, stating that “a plan or contents of the work may be had gratis.” The printer had generated additional marketing materials to supplement the subscription notices that appeared in newspapers.
Adams’s subscription notice was not the only one in the July 21, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal. Two others sought subscribers for John Thompson’s Explication of the Shorter Catechism and John Warden’s System of Revealed Religion. Each listed subscription agents in more than one town. In addition to accepting subscriptions in Wilmington, Adams had agents in two much larger cities, Philadelphia and New York. Not all subscription notices resulted in publications, but Adams’s reprint of Harmony of the Divine Attributes eventually went to the press in 1771. A variety of challenges may have slowed down the production process, but the amount of time that lapsed between Adams issuing his subscription notice and finally printing the book suggests that attracting sufficient subscribers was among those challenges. Distributing subscription notices helped the printer incite sufficient demand to publish an American edition of Harmony of the Divine Attributes, but those notices did not guarantee success. All the same, responses to the subscription notices provided valuable information about whether and when Adams should move forward with the proposed project.