- Historic Sites
Get The Prospect Seated … And Keep Talking”
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
In the autumn of 1885, around harvest time, when a granger was likely to have sold his wheat, a man in a slouch hat, wearing the Grand Army badge, appeared on the piazza of almost every American home. There was nothing in his hands to suggest his errand. Touching his hat respectfully, he would say: “I called to give you an opportunity to see General Grant’s book, of which so much has been said in the papers.”
The demobilized veteran was a member of a new army. Concealed inside his coat was a prospectus, known in the profession as a “pros,” for the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant , in two volumes at $3.50 each, cash on delivery, or more, according to the binding selected. The agent knew human nature and he knew his book. He was superbly armed with sales arguments, skilled in the art of awakening interest, fanatically devoted to a basic concept of Grant’s publisher: “More orders are lost because the agent does not hang on long enough than from any other one cause.” In peace, as in war, discipline, training, the fighting spirit, won through to victory. Grant’s Memoirs made a never-to-be-forgotten splash in the world of the subscription book.
From earliest times, peddlers and chapmen—flying stationers, in the English phrase—have combed the rural areas of America to bring books, both good and bad, to the people: broadsides and almanacs, catechisms and Indian captivities, songbooks and encyclopedias.
The golden age of the book agent came with the vogue tor the bustle and the cast-iron dog on the lawn, i.e., during the thirty years alter the Civil War, a time of new wealth, new land, industrial expansion, endless inventions and novelties—including books. In the absence of the modern forms of mass selling, there was no other mechanism for marketing such specialtics outside the large cities except the peddler footing it from one door to the next. That is how American industry introduced a new pie crimper or apple peeler, a darning machine, broom holder, shawl strap, or patented farm gate. And from promoting salve or a new window catch, a man, or his “female agent” counterpart, could easily turn to canvassing for a book.
With his smooth spiel and city ways the book agent could sell you the lives of famous men, and if you wanted fame yourself he could arrange that too—for 2½¢ a word
The greatest reservoir of manpower for canvassing was the soldiers of the late war. No sooner, it seemed, had the armies of Grant and Shennan passed in review along Pennsylvania Avenue on May 23 and 24, 1865, than the ex-soldier without a job would be skirmishing through every four corners and hamlet in the land with Joseph T. Headley’s The Great Rebellion (sales: 150,000), or Greeley’s American Conflict (250,000)
But the sales campaign that was put on for Grant’s book was the promotional masterpiece of them all. A special interest attaches to this spectacular feat because Grant’s publisher was Mark Twain.
General Grant’s work was just made for the center table of the eighties, remembered for its marble top and heavy mahogany legs that writhed and curved and dripped carved grapes. Grant’s account of the war was made, too, for the holy light which filtered through the late curtains and fell upon the Bible, centered upon the parlor table and greatly in need of a worthy companion.
All the subscription books of the day were bulky, often over 500 pages in length, printed in large type, emblazoned with gold, lavishly illustrated with woodcuts, steel engravings, and curlicue tailpieces. George Ade recalled that they “did not involve the publishers in any royalty entanglement.” “Nobody really wanted these books,” continued the Indiana sage. “They were purchased because the agents knew how to sell them, and they seemed large for the price, and, besides, every well-furnished home had to keep something on the center table.”
Into this context came U. S. Grant’s two green and gold volumes. It should be said at once, as qualification of Ade’s testimony, that the people did want to read Grant, whose military biography frequently has been compared to Caesar’s Commentaries , and that a very generous author’s royalty played a conspicuous part in the publishing arrangements. The first check that Mrs. Grant received alter her husband’s death was for $200,000; she was ultimately paid between $420,000 and $450,000 by Twain’s firm.
The whole country became excited about General Grant’s memoirs. Regional or general subscription agents were set up to hire and direct the humbler gleaners. These supervisors were called into New York, and Charles L. Webster, who ran Twain’s company, fired them up with a sense of their sacred mission. The promotional effort was tremendous, But it paid off handsomely. Former President Grant thought the sales might reach 25,000. Actually, more than 350,000 sets were moved.