March 30, 2009
The Legacy of Benjamin Babbitt
By now we all know that 2009 is the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin (both born on February 12). Book publishers have taken full advantage of this by issuing dozens of new books on these gentlemen. But no book is being published about a man whose two hundredth birthday we will celebrate on May 1, who has also had a profound effect on society. His name is Benjamin T. Babbitt. What did he do?
Benjamin Babbitt was an American entrepreneur and inventor, holding over a hundred patents for wind motors, gun barrels, ventilators, ice makers and more. He was the first to propose harnessing the power of Niagara Falls. He grew wealthy manufacturing sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), yeast baking powder and soap powder.
Perhaps his true and certainly his most lasting genius was in marketing and advertising. He successfully used popular slogans and was the first to give tours of his manufacturing plants. One of his creations in this field, however, was never patented yet has likely been the one with reverberations that continue to this day--the free sample.
Who hasn't gotten a sample of coffee or fabric softener or perfume in the mail or tucked in a magazine? Who hasn't tasted a morsel at the grocery store from a kind soul offering a small sip or nibble? Who hasn't gotten a free month of a newspaper or movie service or health club--with no obligation?
Has Babbitt's idea touched more people than Darwin's? Perhaps.
Previously I cautioned about book publishers giving away their information. But the free sample is a good and necessary idea, especially when so much bookbuying takes place online. With fewer bookstores around, something has to replace the "browsing" experience that lets you try out a book--sample it--to see if you'd like the whole thing.
It's been a common practice in the last decade for publishers to offer a sample chapter of a book on their websites (just as IVP has been doing) or allowing you to flip here and there in a book to see what's in it (as Amazon.com has been doing with its Look Inside feature and later with Search Inside). Amazon has even trotted out statistics to show that books with samples availabe online sell better than those without.
So happy birthday, Benjamin Babbitt, and thank you for telling us that samples want to be free.