The Guide to Book-Agenting
by Ellis Parker Butler
The other day a young lady came into my office. She smiled sweetly, but seemed to be trying to remember something at the same time.
I recognized her for an amateur book-agent the moment I saw the smile.
As she seated herself she said cheerfully:
"Mr. Orpheus Smith, I believe?"
I said "Yes," although my name is not Orpheus nor Smith.
What did it matter? A man can be book-agented by one name as well as another.
"Mr. Smith," she went on in the same be-cheerful-or-die tone, "I was recommended to call on you by Mr. Phidias Brown, knowing you to be intensely religious.
I turned pale. I felt that I had at last been discovered and that my true character had become known. In vain I had absented myself from church for ten long years; in vain had I tried to forget the golden texts I had learned in childhood; in vain had I tried to pose as a bold, bad person. I was known for what I was -- an intensely religious man!
Suddenly I remembered that I was, for the moment, not myself, but Orpheus Smith, and I sighed with relief. My bad character was still safe. I could continue to career as a stockbroker.
At this point the young lady nervously laid an emaciated imitation book on the desk before me. It was one of those prospectus affairs, with the front lid in cloth and the back lid in half morocco and a few pages of text and index and pictures bound between -- just enough to show what the real book might be like if it was like what it was supposed to be.
The young lady pointed proudly to the beautiful cover design, with the medallion portraits, and opened the book at the title page.
"This is a book," she said, "which everybody wants to read -- which you will surely want in your library. Nature study is most fascinating --"
"Hold on!" I interposed politely. "Aren't you reciting the wrong one? Not that it makes any difference to me, for in the end I will have to buy a book to get rid of -- I mean, I'll buy the book any way -- but this seems to be the 'Lives of Christian Martyrs' and not 'How to Love the Hop-toads.' Remember that you began by saying I was intensely religious, not by remarking that I was intensely fond of outdoor life."
The young lady blushed, but she went right on.
"This is not a sensational book," she chirped, "a book to be read today and thrown aside tomorrow. It will grow in value as the years roll on."
"Stop!" I cried disgustedly, and she looked at me in confusion. "Stop! You have skipped one whole paragraph. You haven't said a word about the allegorical frontispiece."
"I forgot it!" she exclaimed in dismay.
"Yes," I said as sternly as I could. "I am very sadly disappointed in you. You looked so bright -- so intelligent -- and yet you forget the allegorical frontispiece. Do you know," I asked, fixing her with my eye, "that you neglected to read the title page to me?"
"I -- I forgot -- to read -- the title page to you!" she exclaimed aghast.
She was nearly in tears.
"You did!" I said. "What excuse have you to offer?"
She shook her head, but could not speak.
"Furthermore," I continued, "my name is not Orpheus Smith."
"Oh!" she moaned, and as she began to dab at her eyes with her handkerchief I saw I had gone far enough.
"Don't cry," I said. "Many people would not have noticed that you forgot the title page and the allegorical frontispiece; many people would have been glad you forgot them. I myself will forgive you. You are young. You will learn."
"I tried so hard!" she said. "I thought I knew it all by heart."
"Perhaps we might go over it together," I suggested.
She looked at me in surprise. I glanced around to see that no one was within hearing distance, and beckoned her to lean nearer.
"I was once a book-agent myself!" I whispered. "I once sold the 'Lives of the Christian Martyrs.' I sold two thousand copies in one year."
Her eyes stared at me with admiration.
"You must be Eliph' Hewlitt!" she said with awe.
"I am," I admitted. "I am him."
"Then," she said, "you are the greatest of all we book-agents. Us girls have often heard of you."
The sound of the misused pronouns sent a thrill through me. It took me back to my old days on the road. I felt that with training she would be a credit to the profession. She was from Iowa. To make sure, I asked a leading question.
"I suppose," I said, "you take time in skim through the book now and then?"
"Oh, yes," she said more brightly. "I have skum through it several times."
"I am from Iowa, too," I said proudly, "and I will help you."
I turned to a pigeonhole in my desk and took from among the papers that lay in it one that was creased and black from much handling. It was headed, "How to Sell the Lives of the Christian Martyrs."
How well I remembered the day I received the sample copy of the book from the publishers and wondered how I could ever compose a proper speech to make to those I must canvass, and then my joy when I found, tucked in between the allegorical frontispiece and the title page, this little gem of rhetoric! My doubts vanished like a pie before a hungry newsboy.
"Come," I said to the young woman, "we will read this together" -- and she drew her chair up beside mine. From her purse she took an exact duplicate of the little folder I held in my hand. I read in a firm, engaging tone, as follows:
"The book on which you are about to engage is one that every canvasser should be proud to handle -- a book appealing to all the noblest emotions of the human heart. It should be in every home, in every office, in every school. It is printed on excellent paper, in the best style, and is durably and handsomely bound, and yet its price is so miraculously low that we lose money on every copy. Only by selling such immense quantities can we make both ends meet.
"One of the most important requisites to an agent's success is an enthusiastic and fluent description of the prospectus in a perfectly natural tone of voice. Learn the carefully prepared description here given and recite it many times before a mirror before you attempt to speak it to a prospective customer. Do not try to recite it with your mouth full of gum. Assume a joyful demeanor, as if you liked the work.
"Wear shoes with extra thick soles, so that when a door is opened you can put your foot across the sill and prevent the door being shut in your face. Many of our best canvassers have been crippled for life by wearing thin soles and having their feet crushed.
"How to proceed. -- Always select as favorable a place and opportunity as possible for showing the book to people when alone at their residence or place of business. Do not try to get subscribers in a crowd of half a dozen or more persons, such as at funerals or marriages.
"Before calling on a person you should, if possible, learn his name, so as to address him by it. A man will pay more attention when you address him by name and with self-possession. Be dignified, but kind; firm, but gentle.
"Begin your canvass with the most influential man in your territory. Ministers are usually the most influential and also the easiest. After you have secured the subscription of a prominent man you should get him to give you the names of such persons as he thinks might subscribe, and when you call on them you can say you were recommended by Mr. --------, giving the gentleman's name. Thus you are more apt to secure attention.
"If the prominent man refuses to give you any names, you must say, assuming a light and merry tone, 'Ha! ha! I suppose you think if I know my business I should call on everybody in town.' He will then say 'Yes.' After that you can truthfully tell every one that you were recommended by Mr. So-and-So to call on them.
"Produce your prospectus, call attention to the beautiful cover design with the three medallion portraits, and open it at the title page. Read title page.
"'The allegorical frontispiece (point to illustration facing title) represents the angel Gabriel mourning over a coffin. How touching is the sentiment! Above are wreaths surrounding the immortal names of Stephen, John and Sebastian. Below are inscribed the words uttered by Garfield when addressing a multitude in Wall Street, New York, right after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln -- words as true today as they were then: "God reigns and the government at Washington, D. C., still lives."' (Pause a while, giving your customer time to study the beautiful picture.)
"Continue by saying: 'This is not a sensational book -- a book to be read today and thrown aside tomorrow. It will grow in value as the years roll on. The martyrs are dead now, but they will be deader in ten years from now, or at least as dead. The appendix, bringing the book down to date, tells of all the martyrs to fall by the assassins' bullets, and so on, in our own and alien lands. This is by Samuel Toxis, the famous biographer and journalist. Here is a portrait (turn pages until you come to page 19) of a martyr after being stoned to death. See how natural it is. He looks as if he was alive.'
"Now turn to the picture of Nero and show all the pictures as they come, reading the lines under each. Then say: 'These are only a small portion of the illustrations. The book is full of them. You thrill with horror to see these executions of the martyrs. Some of the other pictures are much more horrible. A noted artist has said that these are the most horrible pictures he ever saw. This prospectus was hastily prepared, but the book itself will be gotten up, as all the books of our house are, with the greatest care.'
"Turn back to the table of contents. 'Here is a part of the table of contents (turn leaves slowly); you can see even from this how complete the book is. Not a martyr has escaped. This has not been hastily compiled, like so many cheap books now on the market. It is not at all like the sensational catchpenny books, most of which are written to deceive the public. All the martyrs in this book are really dead. Our house would not think of including any others. This book is entirely new from cover to cover.'
"Now turn to back cover, and say: 'This, Mr. So-and-So, shows the thickness of the book. It contains over five hundred large pages like those I have shown you and a profusion of illustrations. This sample shows the cloth binding. The library style (turn to illustration) is shown here. The price is only $2.25 -- just about one-half what a book of this kind usually costs. Less than one cent per martyr. Notice the fine quality of the paper. (Now turn to price page.) The cloth binding costs only $1.50. It is very handsome and durable. You get as many martyrs in the $1.50 style as in the $2.25. Never before did you have such a chance to place a book in your home that will so appeal to the sympathetic interest of every member of your family. I know you want this book. It is certainly worth the small price asked every religious American to have such a book in his library. No library is complete without martyrs. Think what a good tone it would give your parlor to have visitors see such a religious and worthy book on your center table.'
"If you are just starting your list, you now hand your customer the pencil, look him squarely in the eyes, and say: 'Here, Mr. So-and-So (pointing to the place), is where I would like your name.' If you have already secured some names, say: 'I have some names of your neighbors (read them and give the title or business of each), and I know you are as fond of martyrs as they are.'
"If he hesitates, go back to the title page and repeat the canvass. Do this again and again until you get the order. When you get the order, thank your customer and leave. Do not waste time talking or give the subscriber time to think it over and say he believes he had better wait until you call again.
"When first meeting people, win their good-will and respect. If they are gruff, a talk about their children, their farm, their property or other possessions, or their friends, will draw their better nature to the surface. If they still remain gruff, try some little pleasantry. Make a joke, saying 'It will be a nice day tomorrow if it don't rain.' This will usually provoke a smile. If any one meets you after subscribing and wishes to cancel his order, tell him that after receiving your orders you send them by telegraph to the publishers and cannot recall them, and then canvass him again, from the title page on, and make him feel that he needs the book more than the money it will cost him.
"If you follow these suggestions, you will meet with triumphant success.
When I had finished reading the foregoing, the young lady sighed:
"I wonder if I can ever repeat it as beautifully as you do!" she said longingly. "It was just like a machine. Not a bit of expression. It just rattled along like a boy reciting his multiplication tables."
"Yes," I admitted, "but it required years to acquire it. When I was younger I could recite the entire canvass without pausing to take breath. I could go from allegorical frontispiece to the cloth cover, price $1.50, without raising or lowering my voice, in the slightest. I could shut my eyes and turn to the proper pages without making a mistake. Oh, yes, I was indeed a great success as a book-agent, but it has upset the whole world for me. Everything is topsy turvy."
She looked her sympathy. "How?" she asked gently.
"Because," I explained, "the first rule of book-agenting is to sit facing your customer. You put the book in his hands, and it is right side up to him. You turn the pages, and they are upside down to you. You see the pictures, but you see them wrong side up. You read passages to the customer, but you must read them inverted. I kept at it a little too long.
"In a little while I could read better with the book upside down than right side up, and the pictures only looked right to me when I saw them inverted. I forgot how to read the right way. I had to hold my newspaper wrong side up to see it. When I wanted to admire a landscape I had to bend down and look at it under my arm. And today, when I have money to satisfy all my wants, my house is hung with pictures bottom side up. It is the only way I can see them."
For a moment I was lost in thought and then I shook myself. The young woman was looking me squarely in the eyes. I saw she was about to speak. She put her hand in her purse and drew out a pencil.
She held it toward me with one hand, while with the other she pointed to the list that lay on my desk.
"Here, Mr. Hewlitt," she said, "is where I would like your name."
"My dear young lady," I explained, "I have ten copies of that 'Life of the Christian Martyrs' at home now."
A glassy stare came into her eyes.
"Mr. Hewlitt," she said, "I was recommended to call on you by Mr. Phidias Brown, knowing you to be intensely religious. This is a book which everybody wants to read now --"
"Oh, stop!" I cried. "Don't you know that I --?"
"Wants to read now," she continued," and which you will surely want in your library. The allegorical frontispiece represents --"
"Stop it!" I cried again.
"Represents the angel Gabriel mourning over a coffin. Above are --"
"Stop!" I shouted. "I'll sign! I want the book!"
"Thank you," she said sweetly. "You have helped me so much by your assistance."
"Glad to know it," I said heartily, extending my hand. "Always glad to help a beginner. Won't you stop and have lunch with me as a fellow book-agent?"
"Oh, no!" she said, "I really couldn't."
"As a fellow Iowan," I pleaded, with earnestness.
"No, indeed," she replied. "Couldn't think of it."
"I don't see why not," I urged.
"'When you get the order,' she quoted, 'thank your customer and leave. Do not waste time talking or give the subscriber time to think it over and say he believes he had better wait until you call again.'"
"You know that part well enough," I said with some asperity.
She smiled indulgently.
"Oh, yes," she admitted, "and I should. I have been selling this book for five years now."