The Buntling Ball Prize: Lessons from a Century-old Marketing Disaster

 

Sometimes I stumble onto one story while researching another, like a few years ago when an 1870s advertisement caught my eye. I filed it away, forgot about it, until I came across it again a couple of months ago. Research led me to buy two first-edition books. The first is an 1884 novel about the country’s burgeoning economy. The second, published the following year in 1885, is a satirical play about New York City’s bourgeoisie. The first was a bestseller, while the second was not only a flop, but a nineteenth century public relations disaster. Today we’re going back 135 years to tell their story.

Feel free to listen to the audio version, or read for yourself.

The Buntling Ball Prize

 

 

 

The Funk & Wagnalls marketing team gathered around a conference table to discuss Edgar Fawcett’s new manuscript. Fawcett, a well-known author who’d already cranked out sixteen books in twelve years, had just submitted his seventeenth, a book called The Buntling Ball. The story takes place at a high-society ball hosted by the wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Buntling. Their guests cover the entire socio-economic spectrum, from the Buntling’s daughter, Jane, to her secret lover, Leandor Briggs, “a lowly clerk of slender means,” who’s crashed the party to convince Jane to elope. They’re joined by compound-characters with droll names such as: The Chorus of Knickerbocker Young Men, The Chorus of Social Strugglers, and The Chorus of the Gossips.

The first thing one notices about The Buntling Ball is that it’s written more like a musical than a novel. To give you a taste, here’s a section where The Chorus of Maneuvering Mammas offers their advice on how a young lady can land a rich man:

With subtle scheming
Our brains are teeming;
No idle dreaming
Our bosoms know.
Observers wily
We notice slyly,
And value highly
The moneyed beau.

They blame us greatly,
And say sedately
The matron stately
 Should caste revere;
But we, hard-fated,
Are actuated
To have well-mated
 Our daughters dear.

Far less than falter,
We may not alter
Nor yet would palter
With precepts dread.
If girls must marry
Tom, Dick, or Harry,
Why need they tarry
Till youth has fled?

‘Tis clearly better
To clinch the fetter
By word or letter
By speech or pen;
And so most wary,
We mark how vary
For Maud or Mary
The moods of men.

The magic potion
The shy emotion
Of their devotion
We cannot sway;
By means more slender
We strive to render
The trifler tender
A fiancé.

The art Circean
Is now plebeian
The spell Madean
Has lost its vogue;
But smiling sweetly,
And planning neatly.
We trap completely
The careful rogue.

Before he guesses
That fond addresses
And light caresses
May vows evoke,
Without a blunder,
As lawful plunder,
We push him under
The marriage yoke.

Our tricks to mention
Of tact, invention,
We’ve no intention
Nor any wish;
But quite demurely
And most securely
(Believe it surely)
We land our fish!

The marketing team clearly had their work cut out for them and so they started brainstorming. Such an unconventional book required an unconventional marketing plan. They needed something different–something bold. And that’s when the discussion turned to a new novel that was making quite a splash.

 

 

It’s called serialization, the way that nineteenth century publishers vetted the popularity of books before incurring the cost of printing thousands of them. Considered one of the earliest freemium business models, publishers would sell manuscripts to magazines who would then release it, chapter-by-chapter, over the course of several months. If the series proved promising, they’d go to print. If not, they’d have spared themselves a bad expense.
Harper & Brothers approached The Century Magazine with such a manuscript. The editors liked what they saw and paid $2,500 (about $63,000 today) for the right to serialize a novel called The Bread Winners. The magazine released the first four chapters in August 1883, then spread the rest over the next five months.

Public interest in The Bread Winners spiked immediately for three reasons. First, the novel tackled a topical issue, the struggle between business and labor. Second, it did so from a pro-business as opposed to the more popular pro-labor perspective. Lastly, because of the second reason, its author, John Hay, statesman, diplomat, poet, businessman, and Assistant Secretary of State to President Rutherford B. Hayes, wanted Bread Winners published anonymously—a secret that he’d take to his grave some twenty-one years later.

These factors, combined with the novel’s piecemeal release, created a cultural phenomenon as people from all walks of life speculated about the author’s identity. Had this event happened today, it surely would have been the subject of late-night monologues, water cooler discussions, and social media memes.

The publishing industry watched with bemused amazement at the success of The Bread Winners. The Century magazine even claimed that it single-handedly contributed to 20,000 new subscriptions. Having passed the test, Harper & Brothers published The Bread Winners in book form.

The Funk & Wagnalls marketing team studied Bread Winners for clues that could help them with The Buntling Ball. They wondered. If they released The Buntling Ball anonymously, could lightning strike twice? Probably not–at least not without modifications to attract the lightning. That’s when someone floated the idea of a cash prize for identifying Edgar Fawcett as the author. The team pitched the idea to upper management, who must have liked it because they approved a $1,000 cash prize–an amount that would be worth more than $26,000 today.

Funk & Wagnalls opened their contest with an ad in the Delta Epsilon Quarterly:

Many reviewers liked what they saw.

Literary World had this to say: “The Buntling Ball, a book of society verses, whose author we are not allowed to divulge, but whose individuality is so pronounced in his pages that the authorship is quite obvious…. The illustrations are outlined drawings, and the whole book partakes much in the flavor of Mr. Grant’s Little Tin Gods.”

The Detroit Sunday News said, “Written in the form of a comic opera libretto, and a very bright one at that, indeed, it is called ‘an opera without music;’ and yet it is so well written that it almost sings itself. If W.S. Gilbert didn’t write it, he should get the person that did…to compose the next Gilbert and Sullivan opera…”

The Minneapolis Tribune agreed with the Gilbert and Sullivan connection. “Full of happy conceits of rhyme and thought…One has the same sensation in reading it as would be produced by hearing Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas. Indeed, it is very clever.”

The contest was creating precisely the buzz that the marketing team had hoped for, so they fanned the flames of speculation with another advertisement.

Did Henry Guy Carlton write the Buntling Ball? the headline asked.

Guesses at the author:

      • Brander Mathews guesses Robert Grant
      • Julien Hawthorne guesses J.R. Lowell
      • Willian A. Hammond guesses Edgar Fawcett
      • And Edgar Fawcett guesses H. H. Bogwen

Oh, what a tangled web this marketing team weaves.

The team would soon learn that what’s woven can be unwoven as prizemoney-momentum couldn’t overcome poor-product-inertia. The Century, the same magazine that gained twenty thousand new subscriptions because of the Bread-Winners, had harsh words for the Buntling Ball.

“Quite a number of anonymous novels have lately appeared, perhaps not without some influence from the success which befell ‘The Bread-winners.’ The pleasure of guessing who wrote a book…called public attention to the anonymous novel for the first time on a very large scale. ‘The Buntling Ball,’ a nonsense-book with a satirical aim, written in verse, has gained much by the mystery as to its authorship. While unreasonably long, it has very clever things in it, on secondary lines. The workmanship is careful, and the humorous parody on the chorus of the old Greek tragedies…could not be better…On the large lines, as a satire on New York society, it must be confessed that ” The Buntling Ball ” is a failure.

The Book Buyer magazine followed with a report suggesting that The Buntling Ball might be suffering sluggish sales:

“The retailers still continue to speak their minds. A most curious incident in the discount system is the unusual circular issued by Funk & Wagnalls, in announcing (or not announcing) the key to the secret of “The Buntling Ball.” Such an offer, sown to broadcast by a house of this standing, shows how demoralized present prices really are.”

And just when the marketing team thought it couldn’t get any worse–poor reviews and poor sales appeared to be just the tip of the failure iceberg. Funk & Wagnalls was about to experience a public relations nightmare for the ages.

 

 

The typewriter was introduced commercially in 1874, but it wouldn’t be adopted generally for another couple of years. Therefore, publishers duplicated handwritten manuscripts, such as The Buntling Ball, photolithographically. So, when an anonymous book and its thousand-dollar bounty crossed the desks of reviewers, many recognized Edgar Fawcett’s handwriting. And while none of these esteemed professionals broke the implied embargo publicly, they may have mentioned something to colleagues, friends, and family, who then flooded Funk & Wagnalls’ mailroom with a steady stream of correct guesses.

Funk & Wagnalls now had a dilemma. How should they distribute the prizemoney? Should they pay the first correct guess or split the cash among all the correct answers? They chose the latter, which diluted the winnings and angered vocal winners who were expecting thousand-dollar checks.

Funk & Wagnalls made a feeble attempt at damage control through a cringeworthy open letter.

THE ” BUNTLING BALL” PRIZE.
March 23, 1886.
To the Editor of Publishers’ Weekly

We have seen in several papers criticisms like the following…from the Brooklyn Union:

Some two or three hundred people guessed the name of the author…and they were informed by the publishers that their share of the $1000, amounting to about $3 each, would be paid to them in books selected from Funk & Wagnalls’ list of publications. The guessers who believed in the $1000 cash prize may now regret the waste of the postage-stamp which carried their guess.”

Permit us to say:

1. We do not question the right of any one to criticize as severely as he may please the offer by us of one thousand dollars for the correct naming of the author of an anonymous book. We may have been right, or we may have been wrong in making this offer; it depends wholly on the standpoint from which it is viewed. It would be of little profit to discuss this now.

2. It is not true that we have not kept the letter and spirit of the contract in our offer. We did not compel the persons who guessed correctly to take pay in our books. We gave them the option of taking books at a discount or cash. The fact is, that nine tenths of the amount was paid in cash and the other tenth was not paid in cash only because the ” guessers” preferred books. We went beyond the letter of our offer. By our offer, the money was to be paid when 10,000 copies were sold. Ten thousand copies were not sold — only 8000 were disposed of. We were under no obligation to pay the money now. We would have been perfectly fair had we refused to distribute the money until the ten thousandth copy had been disposed of, which might not have been for twelve months or more, perhaps never.

3. There were several authors who were named almost, if not altogether as frequently as was the true author, up to a week before the close of the offer. Gilbert, Robert Grant, Fawcett. Croffut, Bunner, were ” guessed ” almost an equal number of times. Holmes, Lowell. Hay, Stec man, Carleton, were ” guessed ” over and over again. In all some 250 different authors were named. Had it not been for an inadvertence, a few days before the closing of the offer, the author had not been named correctly nearly so often. By an oversight, a manuscript story by the author of ” Buntling Ball ” was placed in the hands of a syndicate of papers. The manuscript was in the well-known handwriting of the author. This, of course, gave away the secret. As a result, from a single establishment…25 correct “guesses” came in, from another 12, and from many others one, two, three each. Prior to the secret thus leaking out only comparatively few persons had guessed correctly.

Whatever may be said about this experiment it has made pretty manifest that there are not many people who are able to determine from internal evidence the author of a book.

Funk & Wagnalls. 10 & 12 Dey St. N. Y.

 

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the roots of the modern-day disclaimer in the fiasco known as The Buntling Ball Prize. Nineteenth century marketers had neither an understanding nor a need for such defensive measures, which enabled them to overlook the fine details required to support a public contest, like: stipulating that the prizemoney depended upon selling ten-thousand copies, how the winnings would be distributed, or the concept of contest eligibility.

And there you have it. Two, one-hundred-thirty-year-old books, written by two different authors, and connected by anonymity. The first succeeded because of great writing and its audience’s natural curiosity. The second failed because it deceived its audience with a gimmick.

Or, to borrow the writing style of the Buntling Ball:

To achieve success,
We must address,
The best way to press
Our message receipt.
And so be leery
Of being too cheery
Cause its much more than theory
the wrath of deceit.

The Story You Start is Rarely the Story You Tell

 

This morning I started writing a piece about President Lincoln’s use of language in the Gettysburg address. Instead, as happens frequently, I ended up writing something totally different.

You see, my muse is fickle. She arrives when she wants, and while I can’t predict her arrivals, I’ve learned that I can attract her through a simple act: writing…ANYTHING. She loves the rhythmic sound of fingertips striking a keyboard and if she’s in the mood, we start dancing.

But that’s when all bets are off. Any thoughts of continuing down the original story path are futile, as my suddenly invigorated fingertips struggle to keep up with a barrage of wild new ideas. Some are good and others aren’t, but it doesn’t matter. The thought-train is barreling downhill and my job is get out of its way.

That’s what happened when I started writing about the Gettysburg Address. As I studied an old photograph from the actual event, I wondered what the people in it were thinking. That’s when she arrived and steered me away from a linquistic story to a more historical one. The resulting rough draft wasn’t quite StoryHowish, yet, it still lead me to think more deeply about my own process.

Writing, as in storytelling, is not a linear process. No matter how hard you try to maintain a strait line from point A to point B, the muse forces course-corrections to F, then through W, and finally concluding at Z. Resisting such deviations leads only to frustration. Therefore, the measure of any skilled storyteller is the ability to put one’s ego aside to find the right story.

Have you set out to tell a story but find yourself blocked? Woo the muse with the call of the keyboard. Perhaps she’ll help you find a better path.

Now, let’s see if I can finish that piece on the Gettysburg address.

 

Photo Credit: Williams, Sophus, photographer. Woman Looking at Book as Another Woman Points to Something in the Book. , None. [Berlin: loescher & petsch ; verl. e. linde & comp. sophus williams between 1867 and 1873] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/96519653/.

Storytellers Address Symptoms and Causes

 

I’ve always liked writing, but I can’t say the same thing about reading. My reading experience differs from most of my writing friends, who describe the joys of discovering their local libraries, where they spent hours both finding and devouring books.

I just couldn’t do it. Reading was a physically painful process. After about a half-hour, my eyes would hurt, and I needed to stop. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that my optometrist diagnosed the problem.

“You’re nearsighted,” Dr. Baker, said. “So, I’m prescribing you reading glasses.”

I looked at him quizzically. “But, Doc, everything up close is clear. It’s the things in the distance that are fuzzy. Why do I need reading glasses?”

“To remove eye strain,” he said, before explaining how eye muscles contract to focus close and relax to focus far. “You’re an engineer. Your entire world is only a few feet away. Because of that, your eye muscles never get a chance to relax and thus they remain in a perpetual state of near focus.”

So, rather than giving me corrective glasses to compensate for my nearsightedness, Dr. Baker prescribed reading glasses to trick my eyes into thinking that they were focused out far, thus forcing my eye muscles to relax, and helping my distant-vision to return.

Those reading glasses changed my life because I can now read for hours and my eyes never get tired.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. When trying to solve a problem, it’s frequently best to treat the cause as opposed to symptoms.

It’s also a hint for storytellers who are trying to find an angle. If a story is the result of people pursuing what they want, and what they want is to solve a problem, there are at least two different ways to go: compensate for the symptom or eliminate its cause. Each one will lead to its own story.

So, what problem are you trying to solve today? Have you considered both approaches to solving it?

 

Photo Credit: Bain News Service, Publisher. Assembling Main Engine. , ca. 1915. [Between and Ca. 1920] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014706627/.

The Sound Designer and the Storyteller

About five years ago, my son and I had the opportunity to play with a DJI drone. Since we’re both content creators–Bryan is a sound designer in the video game industry and I’m, well, you know–we’re always looking for projects to work on together.

It didn’t take long to recognize the advantages of drone photography. The gimbal-stabilized, bird’s-eye-view HD video was stunning. Yet, these majestic images also came with a downside because drone cameras don’t record audio. And for good reason. The only sound that a drone-mounted microphone could capture would resemble something akin to a plague of locusts.

Most drone photographers compensate for this limitation with mood-setting music beds, supporting fast-moving footage with hard-driving music, and peaceful panoramas with cinematic soundtracks. But neither storyteller nor sound designer was interested in producing this type of video. We wanted to create something different that used both of our skills. And so we brainstormed ideas.

Since we only had a limited time with the borrowed DJI Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter (the weekend) and we didn’t trust our fledgling piloting skills (must avoid crowds), we decided to record me doing something that I like to do early in the morning: find a deserted basketball court and shoot baskets.

And thus we had a plan. I would shoot baskets, then write and record some sort of internal monologue. Bryan would fly the drone, design the audio, and assemble the video.

The following is the final version of that collaboration.

 

Engineering a Story

 

“You know, Ron,” one of my friends said recently, “You breakdown story like an engineer.”

While I’d never really thought about it that way before, she’s right. Story is a massively complicated subject that I’ve approached by using the skills that I learned in engineering school.

 

 

I was a sophomore engineering student at Merrimack College when the professor stopped in the middle of his Digital Signal Processing lecture and dropped a non sequitur. “Why are you here?” 

The students just stared at him.

“Why do you want to be an engineer?” Dr. Develis pressed. “Why did you choose a major with such rigor?”

We still had nuthin‘.

He smiled and decided then let us off the hook. “You’re here to learn just one thing.”

We laughed. Surely, he couldn’t be serious. We had to learn mathematics, physics, circuit theory, and control systems. We’d be taking classes in linear algebra, calculus, differential equations, and electromagnetics–not to mention the religion and philosophy courses required to graduate from an Augustinian school.

He dismissed our protests. “Your four years in Engineering school will teach you one thing: a method to solve problems. You’ll learn how to break big problems into small ones. Then, by solving the small problems, you’ll eventually solve the big ones.”

As we pondered that thought, he then made a disturbing prediction. “And you’ll get so good at it, that some people will hate you for it.”

 

 

Although I didn’t believe him at the time, life has proved his grim prophecy to be true. It tends to happen while working on big problems with someone who wants to solve them whole. Unfortunately, all-at-once strategies frequently become a jumbled mess of subjectivity, passion, and emotion–all great things when bringing energy to a problem–but terrible while trying to solve one.

My training forces me to look at problems objectively. First I seek to uncover the root causes to problems. Next I learn as much about them as I can. Finally, I break the big problem into smaller, more manageable ones. The process is ruthlessly sequential and simultaneously infuriating to someone who values action over achievement.

Problem-solving is in my DNA. My work is covered with its fingerprints. For example, The StoryHow™ PitchDeck breaks storytelling into four parts: roles, events, influences, and techniques. The Proverb Effect breaks proverbs down into their base components of function, frame, and finish.

Love me or hate me, I am what I am–a storyteller with a degree in Electrical Engineering.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: United States Office Of War Information, Feininger, Andreas, photographer. Science and research. Mineral prospecting. A ground comparator will reveal the presence of an ore body under the surface of the earth by measuring the total intensity and the plane of polarization of the secondary electro-magnetic field set up by the ore body. These students are using an adjustable coil of copper wire which acts as an electrical transformer, and may be tilted to determine the minimum and maximum intensity of the field. They are conducting an experiment in electronics, taught in the department of geophysics at a famous mining engineering school. They will apply the knowledge they are acquiring to airplane detection and anti-submarine warfare. Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado. Colorado Golden Golden. Jefferson County United States, 1942. Oct. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017696228/.

2019 StoryHow In Review

 

Our goal at the StoryHow Institute is to be your one-stop resource to help you become a better communicator. We fulfilled our promise in 2019 through publishing 22 articles with much more planned for 2020. Next month, Ron will be releasing a new deck of cards called the Proverb Construction KitTM (finally!). He’s researching two new books and is writing a specialized version of the StoryHow PitchDeckTM.

We look forward to serving your storytelling needs in the new decade.

Here’s a recap of StoryHow in 2019:

1. Proverb Construction Step #3: The Finish

This final post in a three-part series helps put the finishing touches on your self-created proverbs.

2. Storytelling Lessons from the Game: Two Truths and a Lie

The Icebreaker, Two Truths and a Lie, teaches great lessons in storytelling.

3. Storytellers use the Three Red Herrings

Storytellers are experts in ethical deception.

4. Storytellers use Apophenia

Apophenia, the human’s propensity to see patterns where none exist, is a powerful tool for your storytelling toolbox.

5. How to tell a story in a half-second

It’s called the startle response, the most basic human response to unfamiliar stimuli. Not only does it form the basis of all human understanding, but it forms the roots of storytelling

6. Commonality is the Super Glue of Human Bonding

Ron looks in to why finding something in common with a total stranger is the quickest way to bond.

7. The Storyteller’s Kryptonite

New study reveals that ad hominem attacks are the kryptonite of human communications

8. Unbelief is the Friction that Keeps Persuasion in Check

Although naysayers can blow up an argument through simple character assassinations, chief negotiator Chris Voss offers an antidote.

9. Storytelling Starts with Verbs and Nouns

Ron finds storytelling advice from one of the oddest places, the design engineers on the Apollo space program.

10. Storytellers Train Elephants

Before you step into the three ring circus of storytelling, you might want to brush up on your elephant training skills.

11. Who Knew Storytelling Could Be so Dangerous

Ron goes back to his storytelling roots with the release of his latest podcast episode on Griddlecakes Radio.

12. Storytellers Question Their Beliefs

If you still believe something after five years, question it. You’ll either learn something new about it, or change the view entirely. Both are good for storytellers.

13. Storytelling at its Finest, Apollo 11: What We Saw

Sometimes the best way to learn storytelling is to study the works of others. Ron goes card-by-card through the StoryHow(TM) PitchDeck to see how Bill Whittle used Roles, Events, Influences, and Techniques in his storytelling masterpiece, Apollo 11: What We Saw.

14. When Storytellers Become Entrepreneurs: weshowup.io

Storytellers bring new perspectives to the great game of business. Kahlil Ashanti is changing the way tickets are priced with his company, weshowup.

15. Our Lives Are Measured by the Stories We Leave Behind

Life is a great story, with plots, subplots, twists and turns. The best ones set themselves deeply into our memories. What are your favorite ones?

16. Tradeoffs are the Spice of Life

While marketers want to tell ideal stories, more often than not, their customers choices are less than ideal.

17. Why AI Scientists Must Study Storytelling

While deep neural networks can perform amazing functions, artificial intelligence has a long way to go to match the robustness of human intelligence. Ron Ploof, suggests that the path to achieve such robustness is found through storytelling.

18. Everything I know about Storytelling I learned from Gilligan’s Island

How do you create a great story that connects across generations? By studying a successful one. Ron analyzes the television show, Gilligan’s Island, using the StoryHow™PitchDeck.

19. Golden Nuggets from UCI’s Center for Storytelling

UCI School of the Humanities introduced its Center for Storytelling through an inaugural event called, Telling Stories that Matter. Here are some notes from that event.

20. The Tyranny of “ish”

An insidious trend that creeps under the auspices of protection is threatening human communication. But what exactly is it protecting us from?

21. Fool Me Once: Learning to Play the Game

Have you ever been taken advantage of? Have you ever been cheated, lied to, or deceived? At some point in our lives, someone uses our trust against us and we’re disappointed, hurt, and left somewhat jaded. Ron returns to his audio storytelling roots tell the story of being scammed and the lessons that he’s learned through the experiences

22. Storytellers Cook. Writers Bake.

It’s common to think of storytelling and writing to be interchangeable. They’re not. Ron examines the fundamental differences between writers and storytellers.