Authors and Publishers
( Originally Published 1883 )
IT has been a popular assumption that between authors and publishers little sympathy existed. The story of Campbell, at a literary dinner, proposing the health of Napoleon, because he " once shot a publisher," has often been quoted as a fair expression of the feeling with which they regard each other, and if there is any truth in the picture which represents the publisher as a sort of ogre, whose den is strewn with the bones of authors, and who quaffs his wine out of their skulls, this assumption is certainly natural enough, as between the eater and the eaten there can be little love lost.
It must be admitted that the reminiscences of authors do contain not a few instances which might serve to justify this vulgar impression as to the practical and profit-absorbing tendencies of publishers. Milton, Johnson, Goldsmith, Voltaire, Balzac, Heine, Byron, Thackeray, and many others, including even Cicero, might be cited in support of this view. In deciding, however, how much weight ought to be given to such quotations, it is proper to bear in mind several considerations. In the first place, the reports of such differences as have arisen between authors and publishers always appear in an ex parle shape. We hear only the authors' opinions of the questions at issue, while the statements of the other parties, the publishers, do not get before the public at all. Secondly, these ex parte opinions come to us from members of a genus irritabile, whose perceptions of the facts and equities of business transactions must in any case be taken with much allowance, and of whom some, at least, such as Voltaire, Balzac, Heine, etc., can hardly be trusted to tell straight stories of matters in which their own vanity or interests were involved.
It is further to be borne in mind that, while the transactions between authors and publishers would now aggregate a very considerable number (equal, of course, to the total number of books published), the public has its attention called to those instances only in which the authors imagine they had grounds for complaint or texts or pretexts for satire ; and in reading of these it is easy to forget how very inconsiderable a proportion they must bear to the long list of transactions concerning which the authors had no criticisms to make.
The hundreds of thousands of cases in which the authors have, through the successful cooperation of their publishers, received from the public a satisfactory return for their labors, give no texts for satirical chapters in fiction, no themes for fierce onslaughts in reminiscences;—they remain naturally and of necessity uncommemorated.
And, finally, it is proper to remember that publishers are the only class of business men whose sins, real or imaginary, come into literature. Their clients have the ear of the public, and sometimes of posterity, and are likely enough to assume that the details of their personal concerns and grievances are as interesting to their readers as they may be important to themselves. If the complaints against merchants, bankers, lawyers, physicians, etc., on the part of their respective clients, could, in like manner, be put into literary form, the sins of publishers would, in comparison, sink into absolute insignificance.
It must also be said that the relations of authors and publishers have, as literature has developed in commercial importance, and has established its commercial status, undergone material modifications, and that occurrences which gave rise to some of the bitter passages in authors' reminiscences of a century back, would, under the conditions of today, be impossible. Grub Street exists no more, and with Grub Street have disappeared the patron and the publisher of old-time literary history and literary hatred. The last appearance of the latter is, we believe, in Pendennis, where Warrington and young Pen are described as going down to Fleet Street to sell Pen's poem, and Pen becomes acquainted with the manner in which the rivals of the publishing fraternity, Bungay and Bacon, bully, on the one hand, their hardly paid hacks, while ever ready, on the other, to toady to their aristocratic clients.
This picture in Pendennis," by the way, could not have been given as a personal experience, for it is on record that Thackeray's personal relations with his own publishers (Smith, Elder, & Co.) were both pleasant and profitable.
It is certainly the case today that authors who can produce wares possessing commercial value, find little difficulty in securing for them such value. Publishers are always on the look-out for real material, that is, for material possessing that indescribable quality which secures popular appreciation, and they can be trusted, on the ground of their competition with each other, if for no other reason, to pay for such material its market value. It may, therefore, safely be cocluded, that it is chiefly the feebler sort of authors who make any attempt to keep up the " ogre theory or to represent publishers as " bulldozers."
The fledgeling whose first venture has been entered upon with large expectations, may often be ready to imagine that the profits upon which he had fondly calculated, and which he has failed to realize, have been absorbed by the publishers. But an author who has any experience in literature or knowledge of business, can readily recognize that the interests of authors and publishers, of producers and distributors, are practically identical, and that all transactions between them must be regulated by the same inexorable laws of supply and demand, and under the same pressure of competition, which control all buying and selling.
In connection with this matter of the relations of authors and publishers, it may be worth while to quote a few words from a writer whose experience was, on the whole, not unsatisfactory :
I have dealt with a good many publishers," says Mr. Frederick B. Perkins, and while I have found some few of them arrogant, discourteous, oppressive, and generally abominable in both personal and business intercourse, I desire to record my testimony that as a class they are courteous and honorable gentlemen ; fair and liberal in views, intentions, and actions, and pleasant and intelligent in mind and intercourse. For my own part, after having examined in detail a good many transactions with publishers for other people, and after having a good many dealings with them for myself, I should be satisfied that what my publisher told me about the sale of my book was true ; that he had done his best to sell it, and that what he had paid me (for my share of the proceeds) was right."
In a recent article on " The Publisher's Vocation," the text for which was the cordially appreciative memoir by Thomas Hughes of the publisher Daniel Macmillan, the Rev. Julius H. Ward says :
"The reading public is ready enough to acknowledge its obligations to authors, and seldom thinks of the party named at the foot of the title-page, through whose agency a book is brought out. The traditions of books give every advantage to the author and printer, and place the publisher midway between heaven and earth, where he is likely to suffer abuse from everybody. Yet he has a relation to the literary public the importance of which can hardly be exaggerated, and without which literature would almost cease to prosper. The author creates, the publisher simply puts his wares on the market ; but between the publishing of books that deprave the public taste and those that elevate it, no one stands in a more responsible position than the man who puts them on the market. The quarrels of authors with publishers would make a long story, and, on the other hand, the encouragement which publishers have given to authors has often been the making of them, and has given direction to the development of a generation of readers.
"Their business has its mechanical and secular side, but it also has its moral and educational side. They can much more easily degrade than they can elevate the public taste, and where a publisher has chosen to bring out only good books, and has put conscience into his business, he has al-ways risen through his work to a position of commanding influence. One does not hesitate a moment to buy the books issued by the leading English and American houses on the score of their morality, and hardly on the score of literary merit. The reputation of the best houses is so jealously .guarded in this respect that no inducements can prevail on them to bring out a work of questionable character, especially with an eye to the making of money out of it, while their pecuniary interests are sufficiently at stake to prevent the publication of works that are only fit for the waste-basket. And the securing of the reputation of a high-toned publisher has been the aim, as it is also the present aim, of nearly all the publishers who have been connected with our literature.
" One recalls the names of several Americans who have stood in such relations to authors and readers that their imprint carried immense influence, making them not only benefactors to authors, but the purveyors of the best books to those for whom they were written. Eminent among these was George P. Putnam, who brought a sensitive conscience and excellent literary taste to the business of a bookseller and publisher, and is always to be named as one of the best friends American authors have ever had.
" He published books on their merits, and drew around him the men who had something to say to the public ; and the magazine which he started in 1853 is still remembered, although long ago discontinued, for the noble character and excellent quality of the contents. He filled out the idea of what the public needed, and had the largeness of conception requisite to the undertaking and the proper business capacity to make it a success. No man knew better how to help authors forward, or how to furnish the public with readable books of the best character.
The late James Brown, who lifted the house of Little, Brown, & Co. into its present high rank, was the first American to import the best English books at reasonable prices. Greater as a bookseller than as a publisher, he was eminent in both directions, and from 1837 to 1855 did more than any other man to bring the best thought of Europe into contact with the best minds of America. He had the power to ascertain the contents of a book by glancing through its uncut pages, which is said to have been the secret of the poet Percival's wonderful acquisitions while leaning over the counters of George Howe's book-store in New Haven fifty years ago. His word about a book had the weight of the best critical judgment. He developed a taste for the best editions, and was the publisher of Ban-croft's, Palfrey's, Everett's, and Winthrop's works, in a style that was an honor to our literature.
"The old house of Ticknor & Fields must be mentioned in this connection. Mr. Fields rendered excellent and peculiar services to our literature, but the character of the house had been established before he became a member of it. His persistency and literary enthusiasm had an influence in the right direction, but the cool, clear judgment of Mr. Ticknor gave the house its proper weight and character. There are many instances of the highest type of the publisher in Boston to-day, where business capacity is allied with literary instinct, and where the publisher is forgotten in the scholar and the gentleman, the business by which one lives being almost forgotten in the enthusiasm for good books and in the desire to keep our literature at its highest and best. This ideal is so steadily aimed at, and in many instances so largely realized, that it may be said that our best publishers have lifted their business up to the dignity of the great professions.
"But, perhaps, no better type of the bookseller and publisher has ever been known than is disclosed in Thomas Hughes's ' Memoirs of Daniel Macmillan.' The house of Macmillan & Co. now ranks with that of John Murray and the Longmans in point of honor and influence in English literature, and here the story of the way in which it was founded is told by an accomplished and sympathetic writer. 4 No man,' says Mr. Hughes, ' who ever sold books for a livelihood was more conscious of a vocation ; more impressed with the dignity of his craft and of its value to humanity ; more anxious that it should suffer no shame or diminution through him.' Bound out as a bookbinder's apprentice in his eleventh year ; carrying the burdens of a large business as if he were a man, before he was well out of his boyhood ; thirsting, like a hundred other Scotch peas-ant boys of his time, for the freedom of a large career ; improving every leisure moment for the education which his poverty denied him, at the University of Glasgow, he was in Cambridge, in a university book-store, in his twentieth year, and at the end of a twelvemonth's service there was not a book on the shelves of the shop with whose contents he was not familiar.
"Ten years later, through the generosity of Archdeacon Hare, whose friendship had been won because the young Scotchman had been built up into a higher type of man-hood by studying his Guesses at Truth,' and whose loan of 500 pounds enabled the Macmillan brothers, Daniel and Alexander, to start in business on their own account as university booksellers and publishers, he returned to Cambridge to develop a career as noble as it was honest and sincere. Mr. F. J. Furnivall, in the Academy for August 12th, confesses himself among the young men who owed to him ' the best of such teachings as they got from the university.' ' The man who taught us to think, to read books that made us think, and opened our minds,' he says, ' was Daniel Macmillan, along with our college friends. As long as his health lasted, and he was able to stir up under-graduates and graduates by his talk, he was a real power in the university.'
" Mr. Hughes, in the memoir, the reading of which is so thrilling that one's heart leaps into his throat half a hundred times while going through it, brings out his university work, carried on. while looking death in the face almost weekly for the last twelve years of his life, in even stronger light than Mr. Furnivall does ; but this work was really only incidental to his great purposes, the overflow of the mind and heart of a deeply religious and earnest man who knew the power of good books to enlarge men's souls.
There was so much of live substance in this man, and he had put his heart and soul so truly into the great publishing house that he founded, that he could not be forgotten, and the new generation of today has demanded that the story of the way in which he illustrated the possibilities of the publisher's vocation should be known to the world."
In this connection the editor of the present volume, at the risk of being thought personal, thinks it may be considered of interest to quote a letter from Washington Irving to the founder of the firm whose imprint this volume bears.
The writer once heard of a publisher who, ambitious to cast a poetic halo over his calling, tried his hand at a paraphrase of the well-known lines on Franklin,
" EriLuit calo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis,"
and suggested, as expressing what he would like to have accomplished
" Eripuit poetis animam aurumque populo."
" From the authors he seized brains and from the public gold."
Certainly a most desirable result, and the picture of our publisher, in the guise of a prestidigitateur, exercising an infallible King-Midas touch on the material submitted to him, is a very fascinating one. But brains, the proceeds of which can be converted into a satisfactory cash equivalent, are scarcer and more difficult to secure than the youthful writer or the average critic is apt to imagine, and a large majority of the productions submitted to publishers as the offspring of brains, bear very slight traces of their supposed origin, and are no more convertible into current coin of the realm than are the notes of the late Confederacy.
It is also to be remembered that literary material may possess literary value, but may, for one cause or another, lack commercial availability." The question that the publisher must consider in deciding upon it is whether enough readers and buyers can be secured for it to render the publication remunerative to himself and the author. And the decision must often be unfavorable, even for work of no little intrinsic merit. It may be a scientific treatise, whose teachings, while important to science, would be directly serviceable to but a few hundred readers ; or an historical study, on a subject recently treated by some other writer whose name possessed greater authority, and whose book had therefore supplied the demand ; or essays, possessing originality but lacking literary form and therefore readability ; or a volume of travel, on some part of the world already so fully be-written as to render further description unnecessary and therefore unprofitable ; or a volume of fiction, pleasantly and gracefully written, but not characterized by any distinctive power or originality, and likely, therefore, to fail to secure any marked attention from the critics, or any considerable sale with the public.
The difficulty in the way of a favorable decision may also sometimes be due to some particular circumstances in the state of the " market" for literary wares.
It may, in any case, safely be concluded that the judgment of the publisher, who comes into direct contact with the reading public, and who has the advantage as well of his own personal experience as of a knowledge of the history of publishing. ventures generally, possesses many more chances of being correct as to the probable availability and popularity of literary material, than that of the author, who usually lacks any such knowledge, and whose calculations must be more or less colored by the paternal relation he bears to the article whose value is in question.
It is true, however, that a publisher avoids, as a rule, passing judgment upon the general value of a manuscript, and restricts himself to deciding whether or not it is avail-able for his own list ; and it happens not infrequently that undertakings concerning which one firm is doubtful are promptly entered upon and successfully carried out by an-other. This difference of opinion is, of course, sometimes due to a difference in clearness of perception ; but it is more frequently the case that the manuscript has, in the first in-stance, been offered to a house with whose particular line of publications, or with whose position on the questions discussed in it, it did not happen to be in accord.
It is important, therefore, for the author, before submitting his manuscript, to inform himself, as far as may be in his power, as to which publisher's catalogue it is most likely to be in harmony with. He may, through this precaution, often save time for both himself and the publishing offices.
As, however, it may often be difficult, at least for a beginner in literature, to obtain trustworthy information as to the idiosyncrasies of the different publishing houses, he should guard himself from being unduly discouraged at receiving one or more declinations of his wares, and should continue to submit his manuscript to one house after another until it has been the rounds of all the firms whose imprints are worth securing.
If the work is declined by all, the writer may be pretty well satisfied that, whatever its merits, it is not of such a character as to secure a popular appreciation or a remunerative sale.
The confident author, possessing a mens conscia inflati divini, may still console himself with the reflection that perhaps all the publishers are mistaken, and that if his volume could only overleap the barriers which publishing stupidity has placed between it and the public, the latter would eagerly accord the appreciation and the fame.
The history of literature does present instances of obtuse publishers refusing to recognize literary gems which later have brought fame to their authors and profits and prestige to more clear-sighted and enterprising firms. But the number of such instances is, for all the centuries of publishing, at best but inconsiderable ; and literary history fails to give record of the discouragingly long yearly list of undertakings in which the publisher's enterprise, influenced possibly by the sanguineness of the author, has outstripped his clear-sightedness and judgment, and which have brought loss instead of profit.
It has, in fact, been estimated that one half of the books published each year in the United States have failed to return their cost, and that one half of the remainder have brought no profit, thus leaving the cost of supporting the publishing machinery of the country to be borne by the publishers' share of the profits of one fourth of the books issued. If these figures can be trusted, and while it is impossible to verify them with precision, they are probably not far from the truth, it is not want of enterprise or lack of faith with which American publishers should be charged.
In submitting a manuscript, there is, as a rule, nothing to be gained by the author in securing a personal interview with the publisher. Of course, there may be many considerations which will render it desirable for authors and publishers at some time to come together, but it is very seldom that any thing is gained by such personal word at the time the manuscript is first handed in. A literary work, in the few minutes' time that it is proper to allow for a call in a business office, can not receive such attention as authors usually expect for their productions. It is not, like a Chatham-Street hat, to be cared for " while the owner waits."
There is also no advantage in taking time to point out to a publisher the particular merits or peculiarities of a work. If the purpose and value of the work can not be made clear to the examiner of the manuscript without a personal explanation from the author, it is not likely that the volume is in shape to be of much service to the general public. It is probable that there are to-day but few writers so unsophisticated as to undertake themselves to read their manuscripts to the publishers to whom they submit them. Any such would, of course, promptly be told that there is no time in a business office for any thing of this kind, and it might also be explained to him that, irrespective of the question of time, a publisher's mind is not apt to be, during business hours, in a sufficiently free and receptive state to render him appreciative of the beauties of literature ; and such consideration as he might be induced to give, would, under the circumstances, be most likely to prove unfavorable.
In fact, as is now very generally understood, with all the larger publishing houses the business of making a first examination and analysis of the manuscripts submitted is in the hands of assistants, who are called " readers."
The production of manuscripts for publication is being actively carried on by thousands of literary aspirants throughout the country : from Maine to Texas, from Florida to Alaska, the cacoëthes scribendi, accompanied by a greater or smaller amount of inspiration, is keeping in motion thousands of earnest pens ; while the manuscripts which are the results of all this hopeful scribbling are, with the exception of a small portion finding their way to Chicago, poured into the publishing offices of three cities : New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. These three cities thus form the literary sifters and the literary clearing-houses of the continent. As a result of such concentration, the leading publishing houses receive each (exclusive of. magazine material) from one hundred to several hundred manuscripts per month. The task of taking care of this mass of material is quite a considerable one, and involves no little outlay of time and money. The cash value of the manuscripts, if calculated on the basis of the authors' estimates, would be enormous, and even with such considerable discount as it might be proper to make on these estimates, is still quite large, and the labor of keeping the records of the manuscripts, of the correspondence connected with them, and of safely returning to the owners the greater portion of them, calls for the services of a large number of " manuscript clerks."
The manuscripts, when recorded and numbered, are sent out to the examiners, being usually divided among these according to their subjects, fiction going to one class of readers, science to another, theology to a third, etc. The written reports which come back from the examiners refer to the manuscripts by their numbers, and it may often be the case that the examiners have no knowledge of the names of the authors whose material they are reporting upon. The publishers then give to the returned manuscripts such further consideration as is warranted by the reports of their examiners ; but while a favorable report secures for a work careful attention, a decidedly unfavorable one is usually accepted as final.
It will be seen that under such a system a work has every opportunity of securing the thorough. examination and the impartial consideration upon which writers (not unnaturally) lay so much stress, and that in connection with such an examination of manuscripts identified by their numbers, much less weight can be given to personal introductions and recommendations accompanying manuscripts than writers are apt to imagine.
As we have before said, publishers are always on the look-out for good material, and for the first efforts of the young writers who are to become the leading authors of the next decade ; and each day's supply of manuscripts is carefully, if not hopefully, scanned in the chance that it may include a " Jane Eyre or an " Uncle Tom."
With a few further words of suggestion to those submitting for the press their first productions, we will bring this introductory chapter to a close.
Do not, in a publisher's office, quote the opinions of friends as " having induced you to offer your work for publication," or speak of your friends as being themselves " ready to purchase a first edition." Publishers have learned to attach little weight to opinions of friends " as to the literary merit of a work, and such merit must, in any case, if it exist, be open to demonstration ; and sad experience has further taught publishers to place still less faith on the general promises made by "friends " before the publication of a book, to purchase a large number of copies when it is ready. If an author is fortunate enough to be in a position to further the sales of his book, it is wiser for him to refrain from arousing the publisher's expectations (or his scepticism) at the outset, and to let such cooperation come as a pleasant surprise afterward.
It is also not likely to be of service, to lay stress upon the fact that your " acquaintance with the press " will ensure for your volume favorable consideration at the hands of the literary critics, as publishers are fully aware, that the reviews in journals whose opinions carry weight and effect sales, cannot easily be influenced by personal relations or by suggestions from authors.
Finally, before submitting a manuscript at all, it may often be worth while to take the opinion of judicious. friends as to whether it is in satisfactory shape for publication. Hundreds of manuscripts have to go through, the grist-mill of publishing offices, the writers of which have never mastered the first principles of English gram-mar and could not stand an examination in Webster's: Primary Speller. Hundreds more', which are smoothly written and which show a due regard for the English language, are absolutely devoid of ideas. The writers had nothing to say to the public, and yet expect fame and profit for saying it. Much loss of time, and much bitterness of hope deferred and of expectations disappointed, could be spared to these writers if they had, in the first place, taken counsel of some of those about them who were in a position to judge whether the material had any value and was in decent form. In country towns, the librarian of the town library, the bookseller, the minister of the parish, or some other neighbor of education or experience would, in most cases, be willing and able to give wise counsel, and counsel which, if followed, would save much waste of effort.
Finally, if you are planning to become an author, it will be wise to remember the advice of Punch to the young man contemplating marriage: " Don't." That is, don't, if you can avoid it. Don't, unless the pressure is so strong upon you that you can recognize yourself as really being " called,': and that literature is to be the calling." Books must be written out of that which is in you, not made up ; and if without such calling a man sits down, and says to himself : "Go to, let us make a book," so surely will the end of that book and of that man (or woman) be disappointment and emptiness.