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.
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,
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
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.