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  • Subscription
  • Michael Winship

subscription, Bible, proposals

On March 1, 1790, three New York printers—Robert Hodge, Thomas Allen, and Samuel Campbell—issued proposals to publish by subscription a “genuine american edition“ of Brown’s Self-Interpreting Folio Family Bible. It was to be the “Largest and Cheapest ever proposed to be Printed in the united states“ and, in addition to comprising the text of the Old and New Testaments with the Apocrypha, would be “Embellished with a Variety of Elegant copper-plates“ and include notes and annotations “Theological, Historical, Geographical, Systematical, Chronological, Biographical, Practical, Critical, Explanatory, Moral, and Divine.” When published, the whole would form “a Complete system of the christian religion.“1

Subscription became a familiar method for subsidizing any number of projects in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. Much like “kick-starter” campaigns today, subscription schemes depended on contributions gathered from many people rather than the support of a single aristocratic patron or start-up funds from a small group of wealthy investors to underwrite the cost of undertaking a project. Subscriptions were everywhere: they were raised to support the construction of hospitals and other civic buildings, to underwrite insurance companies, to fund charities, scholarships, and entertainments. Indeed, the large trading companies of seventeenth-century England—the East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company—might, as joint-stock companies, be considered as sharing features with the subscription business model. In the American colonies, as in England, subscription schemes were occasionally employed to fund public enterprises, perhaps most famously by Benjamin Franklin and his friends in 1731 to [End Page 777] found the Library Company of Philadelphia.2 On both sides of the Atlantic, subscriptions along with advertising served as a source of funds to underwrite the costs of the burgeoning world of newspapers and magazines.

The publication of books by subscription was only one of these many subscription schemes. In England the first book published by subscription is generally agreed to have been John Minsheu’s Ductor in Linguas (London, 1617), a “Guide to Tongues” in eleven languages. Over the following century the subscription method was used from time to time by authors and scholars, as well as booksellers, to cover the publication costs of a book. Some expensive works, especially those with many copperplate engravings, were also published by subscription and issued periodically to subscribers in sequential parts or numbers: publishers covered the expense of producing successive numbers with income from earlier ones, while subscribers spread the total cost of the work over months or even years. About 1720 subscription publishing began to become more common in England, perhaps as a response to the passage in 1710 of the Statute of Anne, the original copyright law.3

In the American colonies, the earliest recorded attempt at subscription publication is documented by proposals issued by William Bradford of Philadelphia on March 14, 1688, for a “large house-Bible.” It came to nothing, but over the following decades a few further attempts can be documented. The first substantial work to appear in America containing a list of subscribers was Samuel Willard’s A Compleat Body of Divinity, issued in Boston in 1726, and thereafter subscription publishing became firmly established as a regular feature of the American book trade.4 By the final years of the colonial period, the subscribers’ lists in works such as Charles Churchill’s Poems (1768)—a reissue of London sheets by James Rivington of New York—and William Robertson’s Charles the Fifth and William Blackstone’s Commentaries—both reprinted and published in 1771–72 by Robert Bell in [End Page 778] Philadelphia—prove that at least some subscription works were reaching an extensive market throughout the American colonies.5

The basic procedure was to issue “proposals” for the publication of a work, either as a newspaper advertisement or as a separate flier distributed to a small network of friends of the author or other agents who had agreed to accept subscriptions. If the response was adequate, the proposers went ahead and put the work to press, but often the response was not and many subscription works that were proposed never appeared or appeared only many years after the original proposal...


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