07/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Subscriptions: They're Not Just for Magazines Anymore

What do the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and Young Junius, a forthcoming crime novel by Seth Harwood, have in common? At first blush, not a whole heck of a lot. But if you do a little research, you'll find they share at least one characteristic: the way they were first brought to market.


Grant's well-regarded memoirs were published by author and humorist Mark Twain using a firm he had set up to print and sell his own works. Twain hired almost 10,000 canvassers to sell subscriptions door-to-door, ultimately bringing in 325,000 orders for the two volume set a year after the memoir's release.

Of course, a great deal of the success of the subscription sales model in this instance had to do with something people in the publishing industry now refer to as "author platform." Grant was revered by much of the country for his role in the Union victory in the Civil War (if not for his scandal-ridden presidential administration), and furthermore, he bravely wrote his memoirs in the midst of a well-publicized -- and ultimately fatal -- bout with cancer.

Although popular in the 19th Century when bookstores were confined to large cities, the subscription sales model has been little used in modern publishing -- until now. Seth Harwood, who established his own author platform by making available podcast readings of his novels available for free to thousands of listeners, has signed with independent publisher Tyrus Books to do a special subscription edition of Young Junius.

In this age of eBooks and print on demand (POD) technologies, the benefits of the approach may not be obvious. But as I mentioned in an earlier post, releasing fewer books of higher quality for a select audience can have advantages over the mass-market-oriented, swing-for-the-fences mentality that now grips mainstream publishing.

In the first place, the subscription edition reduces cost -- and risk -- for Tyrus by limiting the initial print run to the number presold to Harwood's fans. And as compared to POD -- the only alternative to precisely match the number of books printed to the demand--it produces a much higher quality book at a cheaper cost. In fact, the subscription edition of Young Junius will be cloth-bound and feature special artwork on the front and back covers, and will incorporate scene-setting photographs of the real locations where the story takes place.

Finally, Harwood is offering to personalize the inscription of each book ordered, cinching the relationship between author, publisher and reader much closer than the one engendered when a book is randomly snatched off a stack at the local Costco.

But Tyrus has not abandoned the traditional approach entirely. Leveraging the capital they generate from the subscription edition, they plan to follow up with hardcover and trade paperback editions in the fall, both of which will be readily available from brick-and-mortar stores as well as the Internet.

Subscription signup for Young Junius begins today on Harwood's website. It will be interesting to monitor the success of the experiment -- as well as watch if the model gains traction within the industry. Can you imagine a subscription offering from Stephen King? I know I can.