Jeremy’s comment on my post about subscription selling made me think that maybe a piece on subscription publishing might be of interest.

Early authors tended to rely on the patronage of some wealthy, powerful person or institution (e.g. the Church) in order to get their work published. After the introduction of copyright laws in 1709 patronage became less common, with the bookseller/publisher providing the finance, or taking on the role of patron if you like. But not all works could attract the “patronage” of a publisher, and publication on subscription became quite popular for the next 200 years or so. The author, if unable to interest a publisher in the work, perhaps because of expense or narrowness of interest, would solicit orders (and often payment) from friends, colleagues, known intellectuals, nobles etc. prior to printing the book. If he got 200 takers, that’s what he’d have printed (no doubt with one or two copies for himself). Thus the whole transaction could be financed by the pre-publication sale.

Minsheu Joshua Minsheu: Ductor in Linguas, or The Guide into Tongues, 1617 is often referred to as the first book published on subscription, though it seems that claim should actually attach to the second edition of 1625. That edition does contain a list of subscribers. Although Minsheu collected funds for the first edition, these were not in the form of subscriptions — i.e. not prepublication purchases. In fact, however, references to subscription publishing can be found in records going back to the middle of the previous century, so Minsheu’s is probably no more than the first book with a subscribers list printed in it.

In time publishers began to muscle in on the subscription operation — they could indemnify themselves against loss by gathering subscriptions ahead of time and using the money they received to finance the manufacture of the book. About 2000 books were published this way during the eighteenth century. As The Oxford Companion to the Book tells us “even Cambridge University Press sometimes cautiously sought subscribers, as for Joshua Barnes’ Edward III, 1688.” Many subscription lists include more than 1000 names, though apparently the average is 245 which is more or less the print run seen as the commercial minimum in those days.

In America this sort of subscription publishing became quite a big business. The University of Pennsylvania has quite a thorough site describing the industry. Much of its focus is on the selling materials which were provided to the agents who went out and sold the books. Here’s an illustration of one prepared for Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee, Twain1889which was published on subscription in 1889 — Twain was an inveterate fiddler with his publishing arrangements, always trying to increase the income from his writings. As you can see the business had evolved by this point into offering different editions at different prices, and really came down to little more than door-to-door selling which would go on while the book was being prepared as well as after it had been published. In fact the “ad” even states that no money is required until the book is delivered. I can remember acting as a book agent (for one day only) while on vacation from university — we were given training and then set loose in a U.S. military base in Heidelberg. We had an extensive kit of materials which we were to use to persuade the poor soldiers to spend their hard-earned money on an American multi-volume encyclopedia which would transform their lives, guarantee their children getting in to Harvard, and make them the intellectual envy of their neighbors.

Today subscription publishing continues to thrive, for journals (of course) and for many reference works. For instance, some law publishers issue annual series for which there is a subscribers list. G.K.Hall’s Bibliography Guides (cumulative bibliographical listing of books in many subjects) were latterly printed to the exact quantity of subscribers. But the tendency now is to think of such situations as standing orders rather than subscriber orders, though they can just as well be used to determine the print quantity. The salient difference between subscriptions and standing orders is the fact that with subscriptions you get the money ahead of time; with standing orders you send an invoice along with the books to those customers who have told you they are interested in the entire series. Getting your money up front is obviously a highly desirable state of affairs, and this is why so many academic and professional publishers love the journals business.

When I was first in publishing we spoke about “subscribing” a book when we referred to the sales rep’s first going to a bookstore, talking up the book from the catalog description, and writing a “subscription order”. No doubt this harked back to Twain’s book agents rather than to Minsheu’s subscribers.

A new twist on pre-funded publishing is exemplified by the crowd-financing movement, typified by Kickstarter. For instance this story from Publishing Perspectives, tells us about a UK publisher specializing in tattoos gathering funds to pay for a book. Strange phenomenon (to me at least) this tattoo-mania, which seems to have gripped the football (soccer) players of the world, and obviously Russian gangsterdom too, but these publishers are using an ancient trick to finance publication.

See also Subscription model.