It was exciting there for a moment. I was looking up the value of an interesting booklet someone had dropped off, and the first price I spotted was $14,000. The second was $12,500.
It didn’t last, of course. The dealers selling those copies had listed the points to look for, those little details which explain whether you have the all-important first printing. My copy did not have those little details. I did NOT have in my hands the first printing of the text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. (Which were printed in 1860, by the way, from Abraham Lincoln’s own scrapbook of the event: Douglas complained the text wasn’t perfectly accurate, but Lincoln HAD invited him to look over the text before it was printed. Douglas was busy that day..)
Anyhow, the evidence was right there before my eyes, had I but thought to pay attention. Not so much the penciled note in the back, saying “3d edition, 3d printing”. I should have paid attention to the publisher’s ads on the first page.
The publisher was bringing out a dual biography of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, the nominees for President and Vice President for the Republican Party. If you were going to be ordering this title for your bookstore, said the publisher, you’d better hurry, as it was selling fast. Then Messrs. Follett and Foster added, in much larger type at the bottom of the ad, that their text of the “Lincoln and Douglas Debates” had already sold 16,000 copies.
The first edition of a book very seldom brags about how many copies have sold already. Some publishers over the last fifty years will brag about how many copies have been printed, just to show what faith they have in the book. But that note should have tipped me off.
What else struck me, though, was that back in 1860, we had a publisher promoting the sale of a book by telling us how many people have already bought it. You wouldn’t want to be the last on your block to own a copy of the Lincoln and Douglas Debates. (Note, too, how they put Lincoln first: an obvious choice if you’re publishing the official campaign biography of Lincoln and his running mate. But didn’t anybody ever call them the Douglas-Lincoln Debates?)
I believe it was Carl Sandburg who wrote about a lost civilization of which just one page of one book survived. And all that page said, before it crumbled to dust, was that millions had read the book and that millions would read it. When did the fact that everybody else was reading it become so important in marketing? Long before McDonalds started telling us how many billions served, here was a publisher in Ohio bragging about 16,000 sales. One book dealer suggests that there weren’t even 16,000 people in Ohio who could read, so the number was bound to impress.
Are there Fourth Folios of Shakespeare which brag “Sold Over 250 Copies as a First Folio”? Has somebody got the rare edition of the Bible in which Gutenberg printed “Over 20 copies sold! Buy yours while supplies last!”? I bet some museum has a scroll that is headed “More than 10 people read this as a stone tablet! Now available in paperback!”
And how many people in Ohio in 1860 just shrugged and said, “Ah, I’ll wait for the movie”? Inquiring minds want to know.