Subscription Publishing in America


American Antiquarian Society
185 Salisbury Street
Worcester, MA 01609
United States

Led by Michael Winship

As the American literary canon has been reimagined and expanded, and with the increasing and ready availability of digital access to historical materials, many of the books that Americanist scholars are now engaging with were published by subscription, a publishing scheme that was open to those, including African Americans and other minorities, who lacked easy access to the dominant literary culture. This seminar will explore the variety of publishing practices in the American colonies and United States that, from the 18th to the present century, are generally known as “subscription publishing” and served as an alternative to what has come to be termed “trade publishing.” The most important of these are:

1) Publication of works by pre-publication subscription, as practiced in eighteenth-century America.

2) Publication of works, usually illustrated, in parts.

3) Publication of works that were sold by canvassers, as practiced in nineteenth-century America.

4) Publication of multi-volume sets, usually collected editions or encyclopedias, as practiced at the turn of the twentieth century.

5) Publication of works by book clubs, exemplified by the Book of the Month Club.

The seminar will also address the relationship of these schemes to the publication of newspapers and periodicals, including the "mammoth weeklies" of the 1830s and 1840s, and books in numbered series, especially the cheap "libraries" of the 1870s and 1880s that broke down the resistance to international copyright.

One feature that brings all these practices together is that subscription books, unlike trade books, generally reach their customers through channels outside the traditional independent bookstore. The seminar will also explore the economics of each of these different publishing schemes to discover not just how each works but also what they all share as alternatives to the trade publishing model. The rich collections of the American Antiquarian Society provide an ideal laboratory in which to explore these questions.

The seminar will be of interest to graduate students, librarians, curators, and college and university faculty interested in the fields of book history and print culture, literary history, the book trades, and the economics of publishing.

Seminar Leader

The seminar will be led by Michael Winship, the Iris Howard Regents Professor in English Literature II in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin. Guest faculty will be announced closer to the time of the seminar.