What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“If they will now Subscribe and pay Twelve Shillings, they shall have a Book at the same price of the Government.”
Advertisements helped to incite demand, but in the case of subscription notices they also helped to gauge demand. Before taking books to press, printers distributed subscription notices in which they asked customers (or subscribers) to indicate the number of copies they wished to purchase and make a deposit in advance. That allowed printers to estimate the total number to print, allowing for some surplus to sell to meet further demand among those who neglected to subscribe, but not so much as to cut into revenues too dramatically. The deposits also helped to defray the costs of printing, thus making ventures less risky for printers.
Such was the case when Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle inserted a subscription notice for “a NEW EDITION of the PROVINCE LAWS” in the February 1, 1771, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. The Fowles proclaimed that the books “have been ordered by the Government to be publish’d; and a certain Number to be printed.” While that order was secure, the Fowles anticipated additional demand for this publication, stating that they believed those ordered “by the Government” likely “will not be sufficient for supplying every particular Person, who may be desirous of having a LAW BOOK.” In their subscription notice, they called on other prospective customers to “now Subscribe and pay Twelve Shillings” in order to have a Book at the same price of the Government.”
The Fowles also issued a warning to interested parties who did not act quickly. “Those who neglect giving in their Names and paying their Part at the Time of Subscribing,” the printers cautioned, “will not only run the risqué of not having a set, as very few will be printed, exclusive of what the Court and others take off, but also have a quarter part more to pay for those few, than Subscribers.” In other words, the Fowles planned to print only a limited number of additional copies, creating a scarcity in the market after fulfilling the orders received in advance. They also planned to charge a higher price, fifteen shillings instead of twelve, for those surplus copies. Subscribers received a discount by ordering in advance so the Fowles would know how many copies to print.
The Fowles sought to achieve two goals simultaneously. They hoped to incite demand in the book they would soon publish while also estimating demand in order to make informed decisions about how many copies to print. Subscription notices allowed printers to conduct a rudimentary form of market research in the eighteenth century.