Treasure from 1893 Speaks Volumes about Publishing 120 Years Later

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Many years ago while visiting Wisconsin, I drove to a rural farm sale outside a small town. It was my last stop after several garage sales. Price tags hung from farming equipment along with assorted household items and antiques. It drew a crowd of curious neighbors as well as treasure hunters. I fell into the latter category.

Drawn to the tables laden with books, I found ancient leather-bound volumes and others in cloth. I sauntered along the stacks of old family Bibles and velvet photo albums. While leafing through Ladies’ World and The Ladies’ Home Journal magazines from the 1800’s, one raindrop plopped down on my head followed by another. I grabbed a box.

After filling it with as many old books and magazines as I could carry, I paid the lady $5.00, and staggered to the car just before the sky opened up and it poured.

I took the magazines home and glanced at the fine drawings and paintings. As an illustrator, I really appreciated the attention to detail. No photographs were included in these early issues. I was amused at the old advertisements, but nothing grabbed my interest, so I put them away and forgot about them.

Today, I read The Ladies’ Home Journal from 1893 with a different perspective. Now that I am a writer, several ideas jumped off the 120 year-old pages.

Long fictional stories and excerpts of books were included in each of the three issues I purchased. All were beautifully illustrated and captioned. Back in the 1800’s, reading was a very popular form of entertainment.

What really smacked me upside the head were the advertisements for one year subscriptions.

Inside the cover of The Ladies’ Home Journal was an advertisement for Mark Twain’s, The Century, FREE to anyone who subscribed to the magazine. This was a leather-bound edition! I believe Twain’s idea to advertise his book by giving it away, reached a wider audience. This compilation of short stories was perfect for the type of reader catered to by the Journal.

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At the time of this periodical’s publication, many authors feared short stories and magazines would take over the publishing industry. This point is often made to compare the same fear many have about ebooks replacing real books. It didn’t happen then and many believe it won’t happen now.

The first article by Frank R. Stockton, explains how he garnered a huge audience by frustrating them. In a beautifully illustrated essay, “How I wrote ‘The Lady or the Tiger?’” he defends the history of his controversial short story.  It caused quite a “hoopla” or “hullabaloo” back in the day.

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Stockton was invited to a dinner party along with several other literary guests. As part of the evening’s entertainment, he was asked to prepare a story. When he didn’t finish it in time, he demurred. Later, he completed this ultimate cliff-hanger about a young man who falls in love with a princess who becomes his lover. They end up in an arena which has two portals. A tiger paces behind one of them. The princess tells her lover to open one of the doors. He let the reader decide which one.

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He received many letters from irate readers left in the lurch. Many offered their own resolution to the ending and begged him to finish it. Most women couldn’t fathom the barbaric nature of a woman who would send her lover through a portal to be eaten by a tiger.

A second book was written with more detail about the lives of the two characters, but still didn’t include an ending. The readers went wild again. At one point, graduates of Vassar College put it to a vote. The tiger received 18 votes and the lady only six.

Ten years later, readers were still talking about it. Not only did The Ladies Home Journal showcase the author, but offered his short story along with eleven others for free along with a one year subscription to Scribner’s Magazine.

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The book is offered free with 10 cents postage and $3.00 subscription.

Like so many who have written their first book, I am watching the publishing industry and new authors to see how they approach selling ebooks. I had been concerned after seeing prices drop from $5.99 to $2.99, and then given away for free on Amazon.

In 1893, there were probably those who thought Twain foolish when giving away The Century. I would bet the giveaway put his work in the hands of many who may not have been acquainted with the great writer.

Today, that is the goal as well. The free price is usually a limited time offer and it gets the book out to more people and the writer’s name on the lips of many.

Writing controversial books is still an effective way to get people talking. Just look at Fifty Shades of Grey!

No matter how many people are in a writer’s platform, a book is still sold by word of mouth. The more tongues wagging, the better the sales.

Here I am in 2013, reading this old magazine from 1893 and can still learn something. Now that’s what I call a treasure!

What do you think about giving books away?

Do you think controversy sells?

Related Articles:

The Ladies’ Home Journal

Mark Twain – Wikipedia

Frank R. Stockton – Wikipedia

Scott Turow and His Sinking Ship

The Nutley Hall of Fame

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82 Comments

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82 responses to “Treasure from 1893 Speaks Volumes about Publishing 120 Years Later

  1. What do you think about giving books away?
    Giving away books, nothing wrong with a little sharing, giving, receiving, and asking in an organic natural way, via some sound reasoning. Allowing the audience/reader decide if a little bit of viral word of mouth (book gossip) will generate some natural sales/purchases over time.

    Controversy, probably a good place to start, it’s like a writer’s news, their PR, and PA systems combined (can almost be thought of as a guerrilla tactic to entice audience) , that gossip, and media news based outlets like to grab hold of when ever they can. The writer just has to remember their on a ride now, which will only stop when its ready to stop.

    But I’ve never written a book, hence all the thoughts above, a bit of speculation on my part. Though I love reading old periodical copy.

    • I think you have a great insight into how it all works. :) I agree about the wave some writers are lucky to ride on. I don’t know how controversial my book is, but you never know how something is going to be received. I just can’t wait until it is out there!
      Thanks for coming by and commenting!

  2. Susie,

    I am in the early stages of writing an interwoven double series. Half is fan fiction, and I will offer that for free. The other half is original, and i would like to make a modest amount of money for those novels.

    I do think controversy sells, although I am not inclined to buy it unless I am genuinely interested in the issue at hand. Gratuitous controversy is as unappealing to me as gratuitous violence or sex.

    i love the treasure you found, and my fingers are itching to explore! =D

  3. Fascinating – the find and the speculations.

  4. Fascinating!
    I think controversy always sells, probably nearly as well as scandal! ;-)
    I’m not sure about the giving away part…still on the fence.

    • There is something about scandal that is tantalizing. Love those two words: tantalizing and scandalous. :)
      I think if they are only offered for a short time it works well to get your name out there especially if you have several in publication. I have no idea what I will do…. At least they don’t cost anything to make and ship like those leather-bound books! Thanks for coming by Denise!

  5. Excellent post, Susie. This should be Freshly Pressed, it’s so interesting and fascinating. Amazing how we can relate to it nowadays. I added my new book to KDP Select but haven’t had time to promote the free giveaway days yet. I need to get with it now, don’t I?

    • Wow! Thanks so much! You made my whole week Lynn!
      Is your new book The Curse of the Double Digits? I bet a giveaway would really do well for you. There is plenty of time!

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  7. Fascinating post Susie! Plus those magazines might actually be worth something. :-)

    • Thanks for stopping by Julie! It was crazy to see the ads and the book giveaways, but the illustrations are extraordinary! It would be interesting to see how much they are worth… :)

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  9. What a treasure you picked up. Love it! The first thought that crossed my mind was this: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same. Isn’t it amazing? Thanks for sharing this, Susie. It gives all of us writers food for thought.

    • I love these old magazines.
      It is true and since ebooks cost “virtually” nothing to reprint, giving them away could be a good strategy. They sent the leather books free with 10 cents postage!
      Thanks Patricia!

  10. You are so fortunate to have that magazine at your fingertips. As far as books go, for me it must get my attention and hold onto it. Sometimes I take recommendations, but only from a select few. Controversy does sell, but so does smut and controversial smut is usually guaranteed to be a best seller. Personally, I love 2 category of books, ones that make me laugh out and others that leave me saying …. hmm. I have read many of these more than once.

  11. filbio

    Great post. I work in the publishing industry and love reading these old publications, along with learning the history behind them. The illustrations were works of art too.

  12. Thought provoking post, Susie. First of all, what always fascinates me about old magazines is the ads. As a subscriber to The New Yorker, I have access to their entire archive online i.e., every issue they’ve published since 1925. They scanned hard copies of every page of each issue so that includes all the stories and all the ads. It’s a treasure trove. I’ve been an avid fan of this magazine since I was 20, and as you know that means I’ve been reading it quite a while.

    Although I am a huge fan of the word ‘free’ I do think that the due to popularity of the Internet, where so much information is available online for free, the monetary value of the written word has declined. It is infinitely harder than ever for a writer who is not a brand name to make a buck at the craft, much less a living at it anymore. A few days ago, I came home to find a pile of paperback books (they might have been touting Scientology) with a retail price of $11.95 (each) addressed to each tenant in my building. Any of us could have a copy. There were no takers. I barely have the time to read my New Yorkers. I had no interest whatsoever in what that book was about.

    If you’re a serious writer who is going to invest a chunk of your life writing the best book you can, and then you’re just going to throw it out there as if you’re feeding seed to the pigeons, what does that say about what you think your work is worth? I am all for giving away copies to specifically targeted members of an audience that could help spread word of mouth about a writer’s book. As tough as writing a book can be, hitting on a successful marketing strategy is a whole new chapter in the overall agony of writing.

    • Love the illustrations and the cartoons. My dad used to subscribe to the New Yorker.
      When a writer only has one book, I would only give it away for a day or a weekend. The idea is to get it to the top of Amazon’s free books in a certain category to engage a wider audience. After that, the book can go back to the regular price. If it is good, it will sell by word of mouth. I am pretty sure this is what happened to FSOG. It was originally free. Tongues started wagging about all the S and M and women started searching for it.
      Of course your book will rock!
      I still think that people are willing to pay for something that is highly recommended. Once yours is out there, you can start on The Manhattan Project II!!

  13. Hmm? Very cool. I’m kind of over the whole free thing, due to the fact that it appears that everyone loads up their e-readers with so many they can’t possibly read them all. It is amusing to see how far we’ve come during this time – yet how things are still very much the same. :)
    Have a great finish to the week.

    -Jimmy

    • Thanks Jimmy! I think you may be right about loading up the e-reader and we buy a lot of our friend’s books. But if writers can get a few objective non-writers to read and like their book, it will spread by word of mouth! Giving a book away for free for a weekend may not be a bad thing if one is all you have. If you have several, hooking readers on your style by giving a book away for free for a longer period will bring them back for more as in Twain and Stockton’s case.
      Congrats on your new book!

  14. That is crazy that 120 years ago publishing was just as controversial as it is today! Who knew that Twain was on the cutting edge of free? I’ll have to remember that the next time one of my author friends says something about never giving away their books for free. I mean, it’s Twain! Some things never really change, do they?

    • They don’t change! I think it says a lot about getting your name out there. The money will follow. I had the opposite point of view before reading “Scott Turow and His Sinking Ship.” Kevin Eagan straightened me out about giving books away and right after that, I found this magazine! So ironic.
      Thanks Tameri!

  15. Wow, Susie. Who knew that an old magazine would draw this much commentary. It’s good to see though, and fun to read. Lots of different opinions and ideas. Great post.
    Paul

  16. Very cool stuff!!! Interestingly, my first thought reading this post…. what are people going to be looking at 100 years from now? People will be saying stuff like “wow, authors used to publish books on this thing called Amazon, and you had to use this giant computer that sat on a desk!” But how will people look back on our time, like we look back via old books and newspapers. Or will it all still be out there on the web in some capacity?!? Questions to ponder…..

    • Those are great questions! I wonder if people will get reading implants with superimposed holographic screens that pop up with a certain type of blink or glance. I can just see someone like me a hundred years from now, going for a high volley in tennis when some video pops up in front of her line of sight! Hahaha!
      With the technology boom, I gotta believe it will only take 50 years to look back and see our antiquated technology.
      They will go to garage sales and buy our laptops for their antique shops. It would be considered a real find if the hard drive still contained some old blog posts and YouTube videos. Right?
      Thanks for coming by with your imagination!

  17. Jerry

    A real treasure. ;)

  18. I do believe that, many years down the road, ebooks may reign supreme over paper books. The thing is that, when that happens, ebooks will just be done by everyone and the paper ones will become, shortly after that, worth a lot due to scarcity.
    I am not going to worry about publishing companies going out of business. If that is a true concern, then the publishing companies that will last will be the ones who are opening up an ebook section!
    Scott

    • I bet you are right! At this point, that seems to be the conundrum. How do traditional publishers embrace ebooks? I think they are slowly coming around. Personally, I love the money I save and the ease of reading from an iPad. I didn’t like my Nook as much. Amazon seems to have a corner on the market. We’ll see where it goes, but I the vast majority of book readers buy hard copies.
      Thanks for weighing in Scott!

  19. What a bargain! Old magazine are such a valuable source for info about life and minds of past years – and the illustrations – and those wild inventive products.
    The author essay about the Lady or Tiger along would be worth the money you paid.
    Free books as promotional items – seems like it would work best if the author had multiple titles out or read to go – so once you reel in the reader with the free one, there’s another title close at hand for them to purchase. I often look for other titles by an author after finishing one (in library, store, or free)
    Wary of controversial books and ones with lots of marketing – often they are overblown and wouldn’t get interested except for all the noise.
    And there’s nothing wrong with sometimes reading a book that won’t leave a long impression – or heavy universal theme…reading anything is good for the brain – it gains vocabulary, sentence structure – even if it’s really bad, your brain works analyzing why that is….and you can complain about it in conversations to others!

    • Thanks for sharing your ideas Phil! I would love to read Stockton’s book. It wasn’t included in the magazine, but I imagine it’s quite short. It must have packed a big punch!
      I think you hit it on the head with attracting an audience.
      I have read several books that I would have liked a hand at editing! I have read the most awkward sentences and strangest metaphors, but when I read something really well written, it sings! I remember reading Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan and crying because I knew I would never be able to write like that! :)

  20. Great post Susie – controversy sells but can it sustain a career or are more and more extreme stunts required?- talent has to kick in at some point. Ma Fightback read 50 Shades and thought it drivel! It’s all product at the end of the day………

    • Good old Ma! She knows best.
      You make a great point Jim! I wonder if authors do feel like they have to outdo themselves when writing the next book after a controversial sensation. I recently watched a program about Phillip Roth. Some were hits and some were misses, but he always included the taboo subject of the day.
      Thanks Jim and say hi to Ma Fightback!

  21. I read The Lady or the Tiger as a teenager. I liked the story overall, but hated the ambiguity of the ending. I didn’t realize it had been in a magazine first. I guess that makes sense. At the time there were many authors writing short stories for magazines. And they could live well off the income they made. Charles Dickens got rich AND famous from serializing the chapters of his books in magazines. That was a great way to build an audience.

    I don’t think that e-books herald the death toll for actual books any more than television was the end for movies and/or radio, which is what a lot of people were afraid of back then. All three still exist today. But, holy cow, we sure do have a lot of options for entertainment, don’t we? What we need now is to figure out how to add more hours in every day so we have enough time to do it all!

    Great post, Susie!

    • The Lady or the Tiger wasn’t in a magazine. They featured Stockton’s story about “how” he wrote it and then they gave it away for free in a short story compilation with a magazine subscription. He must have been the talk of the town to get press like that! And first page no less!
      I don’t always like ambiguity in a story either, but many modern writers end their stories in cliffhangers.
      Even though this was on TV, I immediately thought of Dallas! Remember when the whole season was a dream and they built up “Who shot JR?” all summer??? Hahaha!
      It does get hard to pick our forms of entertainment, especially when there are a lot of amazing bloggers to add to the mix!
      Thanks so much Mary!

  22. What an awesome post! What a unique treasure…and glimpse into the past. I love those kinds of portals into the past (especially when it gets my creative juices flowing).

    • Thanks so much!
      I know what you mean! I have been thinking about this since I picked up the magazine and read it yesterday. I can almost hear the voices calling out from the pages and some of them are quite funny like the woman from the etiquette column.
      Who knew great authors gave away their books back in the day???

      • Right? Probably explains a lot about how their books got around, though. Those etiquette columns are always a hoot. Stuff like that would make great research for historicals…ya know?

  23. In Germany in some big cities .. they have the street libraries – nice boxes there you put in a read book .. and pick up new ones for free … great for children books. In nearly every neighborhood. Excellent idea.

  24. When I moved to UK for 20 years ago … I wanted to give away all my books, 1450 and all read, but nobody could accept them all – asked hospitals, schools and library So they went into storage for all those year … when coming back to Sweden, my new home can hold them all, so I went through every box .. and picked totally about 250 of my favorite and the rest went to a charity. I think the books was a big part of my life … but books makes a home – and I hope my books are .. now making someone else’s home.
    Love this post … and the images are fantastic. But I have never read a book twice.

  25. What a neat thing to be able to still read. I bet that is worth a fair bit on the antiques roadshow lol. Interesting comparing sales techniques in different eras.

  26. I absolutely think controversy sells, but it’s not the only thing that sells. If it was, our televisions would all be filled with Reality TV – and a small dose now and then is fine, but I wouldn’t want to watch it all the time!

    What an awesome find for $5.00! Cool bit of history!

    • I wish I would have bought more!
      I agree about controversy. It is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable and I wouldn’t like to feel like that all the time!
      Thanks Jess!

  27. Hi Susie, I enjoyed this provocative article for your insight and for the amazing illustrations. As to your questions, I think ebook giveaways can be considered another form of advertising. As for controversy, you bet it sells. Look that the state of affairs in broadcasting and so called ‘reality television.’
    Thanks again for a compelling post! :D

    • Thanks Rich! Great points. I hadn’t thought about reality television, but you are right. It fits right in with how controversy sells. We cringe while watching and yet we watch just the same.
      Thanks for the shout out on FB!

  28. Bring on the Controversary – It Will Sell!!! I like to give books aways to free libraries (like in senior communities) and sometimes if I purchase a best seller I will donate it to my local library. Happy Tuesday:)

  29. First of all you bought all this for 5 bucks? OMG!!! Here that wouldnt have even covered a page out of that magazine. I am now very interested in The Lady and the Tiger and will do some research.

    Okay my first book was in e format and sold more paperbacks that e form and I never offered it for free. My issue is now that “word” seems to be for free everywhere and since I blog every day this little part will remain under lock and key. I did however give some of my books away back home and have a good readership there.

    The second book was mainly a book for Canada and a fund raiser so it has done really well in Canada where there is no Kindle only other e-readers from other companies.. Paperback only and no one asked me for Kindle as it was an older audience.

    I know people are doing really well in e-readers but you know what? I come from the old school that likes to hold a book and savour it much like you did your treasured lot. I will stay in my set-ways and that’s okay because you know what? I have never followed anyone and will never be a millionaire.. but I am happy doing things the way I do them.

    • I like the idea of a hard copy too! I have gotten used to reading ebooks and prefer the iPad to my Nook. It is great that many authors are seeing a higher percentage of profits with ereaders, but I also think the market is saturated with poorly edited free books. The consumer is left weeding through them.
      Yours are excellent and I have always enjoyed reading your posts.
      I guess we have to rely on our gut instinct on what works the best for us!
      Thanks Linda!

  30. Great perspective. And controversy will always sell!

  31. Up to a certain point, giving books away for free is fine – it’s great promotion, but if overdone, writers won’t get paid for their efforts. As far as controversy, I tend to wonder how effective the “Fifty Shades of Grey” and other controversial books really are. It seems that that type of controversy is really more “flash in the pan” than truly lasting and meaningful.

    • I agree that as long as books are only offered free for a short time, it will work as a hook.
      I am still seeing the FSOG trilogy sold in stores everywhere. As far as meaningful, I gotta believe that historians will look back and say that sado-masochism was still taboo and the books brought the subject into everyday conversation. Who knows? I still haven’t read them!
      Thanks for commenting!

  32. What an amazing post! Great job, Susie.

    I think giving away books for free can help you build readers but the most important thing of all is that the book be good. Because even if a book is free, it still represents an investment of time, and that’s the most scarce commodity these days!

    • So true! Great point Nia. There has to be something about the book that gets readers to recommend it to others. With so little free time these days, no one wants to waste it reading a poorly written book for 8 hours!
      Thanks for commenting!

    • So true! Great point Nia. There has to be something about the book that gets readers to recommend it to others. With so little free time these days, no one wants to waste it reading a poorly written book for 8 hours!
      Thanks for commenting!

  33. Controversy sells. Other things sell, too, but I think it helps to put something forward with a unique point of view that opens up a topic for conversation. This is how societies make progress.

    • Ahh! That is the key to a book that not only gets read, but is remembered. Great point.
      These days with the popularity of book clubs, discussion is key! Our group has read a few books that left us struggling to find anything worth discussing.
      Thanks Averil!

  34. No way, I’m first!
    Curiosity may kill the cat but someone has to be intrigued about your book. I do believe covers sell as I’m guilty of that. Then if a person has read it and gives approval, well, that says it all. Pure and simple?! The free books probably attract many people looking for a bargain, but I would think many are looking for a good read. I was thinking the other day they need readers/reviewers for the increase in e-books. I follow some online/twitter.

    The periodicals are great as I used to love antiques, anything old was grand. Mark Twain, to me, seemed to march to his own tune and for that I have ultimate respect. Of course coming and going with a comet didn’t hurt, such theatrics! ;)

    Have you ever felt like you were in a forest and you started clearing it, having no idea which way was out? That is what it feels like when trying something so new, so not you. Thanks Susie for your posts; I love em.

    • I agree that the cover does sell the book. That and the first page. I never read the blurbs written by other authors. I too wait for others to recommend books before reading. There have been too many that I couldn’t get through, since they plodded along. **yawn**

      I think these days, new authors expect to get 4 and 5 star ratings for books that really deserve a 2. They forget the classics and NYT best sellers are 4s and 5s! I would love to know some legit reviewers. Do Tell!!!!

      I had forgotten about the comets. Twain is still inspirational today!
      Your forest clearing gave me shivers. That’s how I felt when I first started writing 2 years ago. It took some time to machete my way through, but now I love being in the forest!
      Thanks so much!

      • Yes, I guess you are correct, about the ratings. I hadn’t looked at it that way, so a 3 would most likely be okay, a ‘C’ if we are talking grade like. The problem is who will read a 2? Would you?
        But a person must get graded if they want to continue, because you must strive to give your best, maybe not always, but most of the time.

        • No I wouldn’t read a 2, but I think many are not professionally edited, contain obvious errors and are still getting high ratings because of the old I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine mentality.
          I think the rating system is flawed. Maybe they should go to a 10 star system, if they have room for that many!

      • When I get a review .. you just might be the first person I share it with.

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