What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“PROPOSALS For Publishing by SUBSCRIPTION, ALL THE ACTS and ORDINANCES.”
John Rutledge placed a particular sort of advertisement in the May 9, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette: a subscription notice for a proposed book that had not yet been printed. This was a common practice among printers and publishers in eighteenth-century America. It allowed them to promote a book in advance, yet also gauge interest to determine if publication would yield profits. Buyers made commitments in advance to purchase proposed books, becoming “subscribers” to the enterprise. Not all subscription notices yielded publications.
Rutledge proposed publishing the acts and ordinances passed by the “GENERAL ASSEMBLY of this Province.” In a separate subscription notice in the same issue, he also proposed publishing a related work consisting of statutes passed in Great Britain “Which are expressly made of Force in this Province, by ACTS of the GENERAL ASSEMBLY.” Publication of one, however, was not contingent on publication of the other.
To encourage as many subscribers as possible, Rutledge described several attractive aspects of the proposed book. In addition to the acts and ordinances, it would also include an index, marginal notes, and references to aid readers in navigating and understanding the contents. Rutledge also commented on the material aspects of the text, noting that it would be “printed on good Paper, with a fair new Type.”
The publisher also warned that interested readers needed to reserve their copy in advance rather than assume that they could purchase a surplus copy after the book went to press. “No more Copies will be printed,” he declared, “than shall be subscribed for by the first Day of November next, when the Subscriptions will be closed.” Furthermore, “if a sufficient Number be not then obtained, the Work will not be put to the Press.” Rutledge allowed six months for subscribers to commit to paying “Thirty Pounds Currency” for the proposed work, but it was an all-or-nothing proposition. He would not move forward unless he had enough subscribers and he would not print additional copies. Rutledge cultivated a sense of urgency by suggesting that prospective customers would miss out if they lacked the necessary resolution to subscribe promptly.
Rutledge advertised a product that did not yet exist. Doing so allowed him to assess the market as well as incite demand. The minimal cost for inserting subscription notices in the South-Carolina Gazette presented an alternative to publishing a book that ended up being a poor investment.