How to Sell Encyclopedias

John Erickson

San Diego, Skyline, Interstates 5 and 8 intersect
San Diego, 1976 - My "Territory"

The "Merit Family Learning Program" Sales Pitch, November 1976, San Diego

Notes from my encyclopedia sales experience, insofar as I could gather them together. I haven't found too much in the way of online references to the "Merit Family Learning Program," but I can only assume it has taken the dominant role in educational media since the time I was acquainted with it.

Still, I haven't found any announcements of conventions of former Merit Family Learning Program salesmen, so I have to rely on my educated assumptions as to this enterprise's role in history.

- John Erickson

[Approach as though everyone on earth has reacted positively]

Good evening. My name is John, and what's your name? I'm with an educational firm... Am I interrupting anything? Is the [lady / man] of the house available? If I could, I'd like to speak to the both of you.

As I mentioned, this is simply a business call and I'm talking to all the married families in the area. Do you mind if I sit down? I'm with Lexington Andrews, Inc., a subsidiary of Macmillan Inc. Lexington Andrews has developed a program that they want me to get a combined reaction to.

However, the company wants me to talk to families that have had a chance to get established in the community. By this I mean having both a phone and a checking account. Does that apply here? Fine!

The reason I asked, the company wants me to talk to the more responsible families in the area. By the way, what type of work do you do?


Let me get back to the reason I stopped by. Lexington Andrews Inc., as I mentioned, is an affiliate of Macmillan, one of the country's largest publishers of textbooks. The Macmillan group also owns Berlitz Language Schools, Katherine Gibbs Secretarial Schools, Fleetwood Films, and many other educational companies.

As you can see, Macmillan regards education as a way of life. Our overall corporate goal is to provide quality educational products throughout the world: not just in schools, but more importantly, in the home.

With this in mind, Macmillan Educational Cooperation spent millions of dollars and years of research in developing the components of our Merit Family Learning Program. The program is designed for the benefit of today's modern family. People today realize education begins and ends in the home.

Today's modern family is very concerned with self-improvement to further their education for both themselves and their children. People today take nothing for granted. They want the facts now.

Don't you agree?

[The key "yes" questions begin here: gets them in the habit of saying "yes". By the end of the spiel they will have forgotten the very existence of the word "no" and eagerly assent to every command you make as you close the sale - so the theory goes.]

[Compels them to think up their own answers to support your argument. Makes it harder for them to back out of a commitment to your "Learning Program".]

The purpose of the program is to make the home a complete educational and informational center. It covers science, medicine, literature, business, sports and many general informal subjects. It ranges from pre-school throughout High School, college, right into continuing education and parenthood.

Since the program is not sold in retail store outlets, we are making it available at a local community level, and it has been very successful.

[At this point I lay out a broadside lithograph on the living room floor illustrating the Merit Encyclopedia alongside the convincing information dreamed up by the advertising department.]

[As the pitch continues, eventually I get to the very necessary subject of the cost of this great program and its attendant benefits. To soften the blow, a device is introduced into the presentation.]

Although $879 is less than the price of a set of ordinary encyclopedias, Lexington Andrews has created a plan to bring the cost within anyone's budget. For just 30¢ a day, you can own this entire Learning Program. Now, just to make this a little easier, we have this - please don't laugh now - this little "Book Bank".
[A small plastic replica of a Merit Encyclopedia is produced, with a coin slot on top.]
At the end of the month you just empty the book bank and the monthly payment is all taken care of.

[If after all this persuasive information fails to rack up a sale, ultimately you close with:]

Of course you realize this is a very special opportunity, as the cost of this program will be going up as we roll out our national campaign. I know that you wouldn't put anything ahead of your children's future. [Here comes the gratuitous non-closer insult:] However, if money is a problem, I wouldn't want you to have to take bread off the table. Thank you for your time.

[I couldn't believe the arrogance of that last line when I first read it. But that's the business of sales, and since the customer always has the option of kicking you out, I could rationalize that it wasn't completely unfair.]

Subsequent searches have revealed a handful of people who recall canvassing for the benefit of the "Merit Student's Encyclopedia", though it sounds less majestic than the "Learning Program" we were offering. "Lexington Andrews" seems to be long gone, whatever they were. Macmillan apparently still publishes the present incarnation of the thing.

The thrill of lively expectations of "potential" sales stirs stronger memories in one's backward glances to these endeavors than does the penniless plodding from one slammed door to another that made up the reality. Nevertheless the spark of expectancy is ingrained by such motivational visions, and serve a purpose one bright day when you find a better product to peddle.

[someone else's story] - blog item, "Selling Merit Students Encyclopedias, Summer 1971"