Sometimes it seems that each time society, culture, and technology move forward through either innovation or evolution, they take a longing glance backwards to see if there are any useful ideas to poach.
In other words, in this first decade of the twenty-first century we’re seeing an efflorescence of eighteenth-century concepts.
Today’s example comes from Adrian Teal, a British cartoonist who’s at work on a graphic novel entitled The Gin Lane Gazette based on a fictionalized eighteenth-century newspaper. In this case, the content is a coincidence. What’s striking is the reason for the publicity: rather than seek a contract with a traditional publishing house, Teal is publishing the book through an outfit called Unbound by subscription. As I noted on Twitter a few days ago, it’s an eighteenth-century solution for a twenty-first century problem.
Publishing by subscription was one of the most common means by which printers, publishers, and booksellers overcame their usual dearth of capital in the eighteenth century. If you could round up people willing to pay in advance, you could assure that you’d break even on a project. Publishers used it for everything from pamphlets to novel reprints to editions of the Bible.
And if you go to the site for The Gin Lane Gazette, you’ll see that Teal and Unbound have adopted another earlier technique by offering to publish the names of subscribers in the volume when it appears. For eighteenth-century publishers, this was particularly crucial, because you would try to round up the most popular, important, and famous men and women you could to subscribe as a mark of how successful your publication would be.
To offer just one example: Mathew Carey, perhaps the most important publisher in the early Republic (until I take up residence in Worcester in Febraury, anyway), used subscriptions to great effect in his career, and eagerly sought celebrity endorsements. For his American Museum, a magazine published from 1787-1792, he obtained subscriptions from George Washington, John Dickinson, and New Jersey Governor William Livingston. But not all his attempts met with success. In fact, just yesterday afternoon I was reading some of his fawning attempts to get Benjamin Franklin to subscribe in the hope that it would improve the publication’s prospects (it probably didn’t help matters that he mentioned that having Washington already was probably just as good, if not better, than old Ben).
In the United States in the 1780s, Washington and Franklin were the ultimate celebrity endorsers, and as such were swamped with dozens, if not hundreds, of requests to subscribe to books, pamphlets, and magazines. As Michael Jordan was to sneakers and Peyton Manning is now to, well, everything, so Washington, Franklin, and several other Founders were to every species of print.
There’s no indication whether Teal has enlisted any members of the royal family, former Beatles, or Manchester United midfielders to headline his subscription list. While I don’t have a stake in the outcome of the project, I must admit to some curiosity about whether this innovative return to the past will succeed.