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Marketing Individualism

Mr. Bidinotto is a long-time contributor to Reader’s Digest and The Freeman, and a lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is now available at $24.95 in a hardcover edition.

I am sometimes asked: How can one “mass-market” a provocative—even unpopular—philosophy, while still maintaining one’s own integrity? How can one popularize, without subordinating oneself to whatever happens to be popular?

To answer, let me give an example that should cheer Freeman readers.

October 1995 marks a milestone in the history of the Foundation for Economic Education. For the first time in its half-century history, select books produced by the Foundation will be available for purchase in mainstream bookstores.

This effort will begin with publication of a revised hardcover edition of my Criminal Justice?, plus two new volumes: Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays of John T. Flynn, edited by FEE’s own Gregory P. Pavlik; and The Foundations of American Constitutional Government, an anthology of Freeman essays. By next spring, a half-dozen new titles will be added to the list of FEE’s “trade books.” Many more will follow.

Not all FEE titles will be stocked in bookstores: buyers may have to special-order some of them. But our eventual aim is at least to make all FEE books available through bookstores. And select titles will, in fact, be displayed prominently, and promoted heavily.

Why this change? FEE has a long tradition of publishing and educating quietly—of having students of liberty make the effort to seek out its offerings. And there is undeniable merit in an unobtrusive approach to education: it tends to screen out many whose interest is only superficial.

The growing problem with this approach, though, is the “information overload” of modern society. Today, people are bombarded with a glut of information from media that never before existed. FEE was organized even before television became popular. Now, cable TV brings scores of channels into our homes; movies are available not just in theaters, but on video cassettes; a host of specialized magazines are launched each year; computers have made many homes “off-ramps” on the Information Superhighway; chain bookstores have proliferated in every shopping mall; and books themselves are widely available on tape.

Trying to be heard in this rising clamor is a daunting task. Just as we all must compete in the economic marketplace, organizations such as FEE must compete in a “marketplace of ideas.” That realization prompted Dr. Hans Sennholz, FEE’s president, to decide that the Foundation had to revamp and modernize the way it markets its books.

Some may now worry: Will FEE’s efforts to aggressively mass-market books cause it to “water down” its principles? Or, to reiterate the question posed at the opening of this message: How can we market a provocative, even unpopular, philosophy, while maintaining its—and our own—integrity?

It is an understandable concern, based on a common misconception.

A frequent accusation against capitalism is that there is a conflict between the demands of the marketplace and one’s individual integrity. To thrive in the market, some argue, one must subordinate personal values and standards to popular tastes and whims. Capitalism, this argument goes, therefore tends to produce a society of conformists, rather than individualists.

But properly understood, there is no conflict between capitalism and individualism—between success and integrity.

As Ludwig von Mises and other great free-market thinkers have often pointed out, the demands of the marketplace tend to make people more cooperative. One’s economic survival and/or level of success depend on his willingness and ability to satisfy some market demand. The need of businessmen for customers and partners, of workers for jobs, of consumers for suppliers of goods and services, tends to make people “put their best foot forward” in order not to alienate others needlessly.

However, simple cooperation and basic civility are not the same thing as abject conformity. To abide by the required forms and manners of society does not mean one must sacrifice the content and meaning of one’s own principles.

For example, many changes have been imposed on FEE by the need to meet bookstore requirements. Books ordered via catalogs or mail order—FEE’s traditional sales methods—do not need fancy covers or much publicity. But vigorous competition for limited space on bookstore shelves places special demands on trade book publishers.

To be noticed in stores, book covers must be eye-catching and attractive. To entice casual browsers to buy, the covers also must be loaded with persuasive advertising copy and endorsements.

In addition, with thousands of volumes to choose from, store managers stock only titles most likely to sell. Thus, they prefer books whose subject matter is popular, whose authors are well-known, and—most importantly—whose publishers are willing to promote and advertise their books, generating customer awareness and interest.

Clearly, not all FEE books have “popular” subject matter. But does this mean that FEE must now publish only “popular” books, or water down the content of its works?

Not at all.

The free market actually consists of many “sub-markets”—specialized markets for an infinite variety of goods and services. Not all books are cut out to be bestsellers. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth publishing. Just because Human Action is not a “mass-market” book doesn’t mean FEE should not publish it. There will always be a market for more challenging theoretical works, even though that market may be a modest one.

FEE will continue to produce titles of more specialized appeal, and to sell them through its traditional outlets, rather than through bookstores. For select titles having broader appeal, however, FEE has begun to revamp their appearance, and to launch ambitious publicity campaigns, so that they can be marketed effectively through mainstream book trade channels.

But to move into the mainstream book trade, the Foundation need not change its identity or compromise its principles. Our goal is to market the freedom philosophy more effectively—not to make the freedom philosophy “more marketable.”

So there is no contradiction between publishing titles of broad appeal, and publishing works of more limited appeal. Similarly, there is no contradiction between the demands of the marketplace, and the need to maintain one’s identity and integrity.

No one need sacrifice his principles in the pursuit of popularity. To the contrary: precisely because the principles of individualism and integrity are such rare commodities these days, their market value has never been higher.

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