What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The most judicious, sensible and learned Gentlemen … have already subscribed.”
Subscription notices were a common form of advertising in early American newspapers. Printers managed the risk and expense associated with publishing books by first distributing subscription notices to incite demand and gauge interest in particular titles. They announced their intention to print a book, but only if a sufficient number of subscribers indicated that they would purchase it. Printers often asked subscribers to confirm their commitment by making a deposit, often half of the final price. Those funds helped to defray expenses incurred in the production process. If a proposed title achieved a sufficient number of subscribers, the printer took it to press. If it did not, the printer abandoned the project before losing money on it.
Samuel Hall sought subscribers for “A Tract, wrote by the Rev’d Mr. JOHN NELSON, a Presbyterian Minister, late of Ballykelly in Ireland, in form of a Letter to his People” in 1770, aiming to reprint a book published in Belfast in 1766. As the year drew to a close, Hall believed that he had almost enough subscribers “to commit this Piece to the Press.” On December 25, he inserted an advertisement in the Essex Gazette to advise prospective subscribers that “[t]he greater Part of the most judicious, sensible and learned Gentlemen in Salem and Newbury-Port have already subscribed for reprinting this Book.” That being the case Hall requested “that those who are desirous of becoming Subscribers, and have not yet had an Opportunity, would not be speedy in sending in their Names.” He suspected that this would generate enough advance orders to justify printing the book during the first week of January 1771. Hall inserted the advertisement once again on January 1. He apparently attracted the necessary number of subscribers to publish his American edition in 1771.
In noting that “the most judicious, sensible and learned Gentleman” in Salem and nearby towns had already subscribed for a copy of the book, Hall hoped to play on prospective subscribers’ sense of community and anxieties about being excluded. Subscription notices often specified that books would include a list of subscribers, a roll call of supporters who made the work possible. Even if prospective subscribers had little or no interest in a book, they might have wanted to see their name listed among the ranks of prominent subscribers and other members of their community. In this case, Hall made it clear that those who did not subscribe might not be considered judicious or sensible or learned. He suggested that not subscribing could be harmful to one’s reputation. To keep in good standing or to improve their status in the community, those who had not yet subscribed need to remedy that oversight.