What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“PROPOSED to Print by SUBSCRIPTION.”
In the summer of 1772, Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, distributed a proposal for printing “A rational Interpretation of the prophetic Visions of St. John … By SAMUEL LANGDON, D.D. Pastor of the first Church in Portsmouth.” Before taking the work to press, they first sought subscribers who pledged in advance that they would purchase it. Printing by subscription was a common business model in eighteenth-century America. Subscription proposals allowed printers to encourage interest in their projects and assess demand before investing time, materials, and other resources in ventures unlikely to succeed. The Fowles claimed that they considered publishing Langdon’s “Series of expository Discourses … at the earnest Request of many Gentlemen acquainted with it,” suggesting that some demand already existed. Savvy consumers, however, may have suspected that claim was merely a ploy to get them to jump on the bandwagon. Regardless of how many “Gentlemen” already subscribed, the Fowles declared that they would not move forward with the project unless “proper Encouragement is given by a full Subscription.” Furthermore, “No more will be printed than what are engaged by Subscribers.” The printers attempted to create a sense of urgency around subscribing to what they portrayed as a popular project as soon as possible or miss out on having their names printed among the list of subscribers.
Production of the book, on the other hand, would take quite a bit of time. Rather than take the entire volume to press, the Fowles proposed a serial publication that would “come out in month Numbers, containing about 32 Octavo Pages, on good Paper and a new Type.” Subscribers paid only when they received new installments of the series. The Fowles estimated that it would take about two years to publish the entire work, “each Year making a Volume of about 380 Pages.” They promised that the “Numbers will be duely sent, free of Charge, to all the principal Towns where Subscriptions are taken in.” They listed nearly a dozen local agents in towns in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and Philadelphia, stating that they sent subscription papers to them. In addition, the Fowles explained that each number would be “advertised in the publick Prints as soon as publish’d.” Those who resided “at too great a distance to receive the Numbers seasonably” could instead choose “to subscribe for the whole in Volumes, stitched or bound,” as long as they “specify their Desire, in the Subscription.” The Fowles asserted that they would send each annual volume “as soon as published.” They did not, however, indicate how often such subscribers were expected to submit payment. Overall, they outlined a complicated system of distributing and collecting subscription proposals as well as distributing serialized “numbers” and collecting payments each month. The logistics may have been too complicated. It does not appear that they printed and distributed the first “number” in November 1772 as intended. They did publish a pamphlet by Langdon, “A Rational Explication of St. John’s Vision of the Two Beasts,” thirty-two pages on octavo paper, in 1774. They may have published other essays by Langdon separately as well, but not the entire project as originally envisioned and presented to prospective subscribers. If few subscribers responded to their proposals, that likely played a significant role in their decision not to pursue the project.