The Commercialization of Literature



A RECENT little volume containing A Publisher’s Confession,1 has been received with enough interest to lead the editor of the Atlantic to believe that the views of another publisher upon some of the points discussed in it, and perhaps upon one or two others, may not be unwelcome. But I should say frankly that the general subject is one where analysis can be only qualitative, seldom quantitative; where conclusions cannot always be demonstrated, and are in unusual danger of being influenced by temperament; and that my own conclusions are open to special weakness from my having reached the age when a man is apt to become laudator temporis acti. But realizing at least these dangers, I shall guard against them as well as I can.

While our confessing publisher is evidently up to the requirements of his trade, he is also alive to the higher responsibilities of what he is pleased persistently to call his “profession; ” and in connection with it he even uses such a word as “glory.” He says: “ The great difficulty is to recognize literature when it first comes in at the door, for one quality of literature is that it is not likely even to know itself. . . . To know its royal qualities at once under strange and new garments, — that is to be a great publisher, and the glory of that achievement is as great as it ever was.” Now if such words as “profession” and “glory” tend to make any publisher more faithful to his higher responsibilities, much can be said in justification of them. But many things need saying on the other side, - among them not a few for which the publishers themselves, or many of them, are responsible. Hence I fear this may turn out an essay in “ the gentle art of making enemies ;” but I trust that the cause justifies the risk.

A “profession” is generally understood to be conducted only by men whose qualifications have been approved by a body of experts; but anybody who has enough cash or credit to start the business can be a publisher: a publisher who gave me more than one bit of good advice in my callow days was a jolly, ignorant Irishman who had lately been a porter in a bookshop. The services of professional men are paid for by their clients; but publishers (the best of them) generally pay their clients, and seldom accept work for which their clients pay them. Men in a profession consider it anything but professional to advertise; but publishers advertise more, probably, in proportion to their chances of return, than any other traders. Men in a profession consider it unprofessional openly to seek clients, and not only unprofessional, but disgraceful, to seek one another’s clients; but publishers are more and more being drawn into these habits.

Yet there certainly are features of publishing which rise to a professional dignity. In addition to the stimulating utterance already quoted, our author justly says: “From one point of view the publisher is a manufacturer and a salesman. From another point of view he is the personal friend and sympathetic adviser of authors, — a man who has a knowledge of literature and whose judgment is worth having. . . . We know something about books, about the book market, about the public, that no author is likely to know. With this knowledge we can serve those that write; and with our knowledge of the author and of his work, we can serve the public. . . . A publisher who is worthy of his calling regards himself as an educator of the public . . . no publishing house can win and keep a place on the highest level that does not have at least one man who possesses this true publishing personality.”

Farther, it may be remembered that a few publishers exercise an appreciation of literature in large superiority to financial considerations, often giving their efforts and money to the exploitation of what they believe good, even when they believe that it is a kind of good too far outside of general appreciation to bring them any adequate direct return. Yet no man with views broad enough to command success can be unconscious that the indirect returns of judicious indulgence in such a policy may be very satisfactory indeed. Professional, too, may be considered many of a publisher’s activities,—such as suggesting the titles (a weak point with new authors and not a few old ones) and determining the style and suggesting the illustration and decoration of his books. Higher still, perhaps, is his frequent suggestion of the topics of books, or perhaps the topics and arrangement of a great series of books, and the selection of men of the capacities requisite to carry out his ideas.

These functions are certainly professional. How far the American publishers are living up to them, we shall have some indications as we go on. Yet in considering them, as it is always well to see both sides, we may bear in mind the story of the first Appleton saying to that splendid gentleman, his son William: “The only misgiving I have regarding your success after I am gone, arises from my having noticed in you some symptoms of literary taste.” But on the other side, all that our author says goes to support the view that books are not bricks, and that the more they are treated as bricks, the more they tend to become like bricks, — the more authors seek publishers solely with reference to what they will pay in the day’s market, the more publishers bid against one another as stock brokers do, and the more they market their wares as the soulless articles of ordinary commerce are marketed, the more books tend to become soulless things.

Our confessor, or, canonically speaking, our penitent, virtually limits his consideration to the publication of books of literature from living writers, —“miscellaneous books,” as we call them in the trade, as distinct from technical books on the one hand, and established classics on the other. I will follow his discussion of the relations of author and publisher, of publishers to one another, and of the publisher to his market.


Touching the relations of authors and publishers of such books, he says: “It is a personal service that the publisher does for the author, and almost as personal a service as the physician for his patient, or the lawyer for his client. It is not merely a commercial service. Men of most crafts work with their fellows, and they forget how much encouragement they owe to this fellowship. A dreary task is made light by it, and monotonous labor is robbed of its weariness. Lawyers work with clients and with associated and opposing lawyers. Even teachers have the companionship of their pupils in the work. But the writer works alone. Almost the first man to be taken into his confidence about his work is his publisher. A peculiarly close friendship follows in many cases — in most cases, perhaps, certainly in most cases when the author’s books are successful. Almost every writer wishes to consult somebody. If they do not wish advice, they at least wish sympathy. Every book is talked over with somebody. . . . A publishing house needs a head — an owner — who will read every important manuscript, and freely or frankly talk or write about it, and can give sympathetic suggestions.”

As confession is in order, perhaps I may not be too forward in saying that while I am writing this, I am sending to press the second manuscript of one heretofore unprinted work, and the third of another, all three rewritings having been made at my instance. There are a good many ways of selling books. The best way is to make books that sell; and, given an author of capacity, his chance of doing that thing is vastly increased by conference with a publisher of capacity, and keeping his books together in the hands of such a publisher. It is not yet proved, however, that in the rewritten manuscripts just alluded to, those conditions meet; and my opinion of the conditions is not shared by several respectable people, among them the ever-delightful Mr. Bernard Shaw, whose name is evidently a corruption of Pshaw, as indicated by his attitude toward things in general; and who, so far as can be ascertained, does not share any opinions whatever. On this topic he has lately said: “Whenever a publisher gives me literary advice I take an instant and hideous revenge on him. I give him business advice. I pose as an economist, a financier, and a man of affairs. I explain what I would do if I were a publisher, and I urge him to double his profits by adopting my methods.”

Now if Mr. Shaw has devoted proved capacity for many years to studying the publisher’s business, as any publisher worthy of Mr. Shaw must have devoted proved capacity for many years to studying the author’s business, such a publisher would highly value Mr. Shaw’s advice. I do not know who his English publisher is, but suspicion is cast upon him when his brilliant client says that the author’s business advice “always makes the stupid creature quite furious.” No man can be much of a publisher without enough sense of humor to keep his temper over anything so charmingly inconsequent as Mr. Shaw always tries so hard, and so successfully, to be. Most types of talent gain by advice, but there are other types which an ideal publisher would no more attempt to regulate than he would attempt to regulate a lightning flash or a humming-bird or a box of monkeys ; success is impossible, and if it were attained, the charm would be destroyed.

Mr. Shaw’s non sequitur regarding reciprocal advice, and the race-track view of his relation to his publisher, which he stated in his well-known article, are strong arguments for the very different relations which some consider ideal, — for the need of a man of imagination being steered by a man of affairs — when he is far enough evolved to be steered at all; for the need of a man with whom theory is generally too nimble to settle into conviction, being steered — when he is far enough evolved to be steered at all — by a man to whom theory is nothing before it has had time to settle into conviction.

Of the relation between author and publisher, our penitent farther says: “Having found a real publisher . . . you will discover as your acquaintance ripens, that he has your whole career as a writer in his mind and his plans.”

This point may be farther elucidated by some extracts from a recent actual correspondence: —

A publisher to a young author: —

“When I read your book [this member of the house had not read it before publication], I at once issued an order to advertise it more, although we had probably then spent in advertising more than any return we had received. . . . Whether the encouraging recent sales have been the results of this advertising, or of a recognition of the book’s merits, God only knows. Now in connection with this increased advertising, naturally arose the question, ‘ How much ?’ and in connection with it arose the further question, ‘How much, under the circumstances, is for this book alone, or for the author’s future ? In the latter case, if the future is ours, let her rip; in the former, be cautious.’

“Now while you have apparently felt every disposition to tie up to us, you have not yet been tempted away. Our advertising, however, and the increased sale of the book, are going to send you temptations to untie, that you have never felt before; so I want you to let me know your intentions regarding the future, in order that we may shape our policy now.

“If this request takes you aback, and you do not know exactly how to answer it, read A Publisher’s Confession, and perhaps you will receive a little help. We have stood by you in the face of a good deal of discouragement, and our faith and hope at last show some prospect of being justified, and probably there are few persons, outside of your immediate personal entourage, who will take more satisfaction, unselfish as well as selfish, in that circumstance than we do.”

From the author’s reply : —

“Your feeling of course is natural and right, that a share in the success which you help an author to win belongs to you; on the other hand, how can he pledge you his ‘future?’ Are you asking specifically that I promise to offer you every book I write for the rest of my natural days ? It seems to me I might as reasonably ask you to pledge yourself to publish every such work. If there is to be an agreement, let it be specific, at any rate. Without any agreement, merely bearing in mind that it is right that you should have a share in what you have helped to create — why, I have a weakness toward living up to my obligations, and consequently a dread of indefinite obligations.”

From the publisher’s answer: —

“I don’t think we need any cast-iron agreement about the future. Our views of the equities and policies of the situation appear to be about the same, and I only wanted to make reasonably sure that they were. I think an author needs a publisher with whom he shall be identified all his days. Of course if he gets a bad one, or the publisher gets a bad author, the need has n’t been met. I take these to be your views, and with that impression, shall feel justified in spending more time and money on your work than if I did not believe that you held them.”

By the way, this book responded a little, apparently, to the advertising, and stopped when the advertising did. The advertising was done at a loss. More of this later.

Certainly very different views of the ideal relations between author and publisher are held by a class whose interests in the subject are as real as the publishers’. I refer to the literary agents. Their ideal (though they have begun to see the impracticability of its realization) is that an author shall never see a publisher, and that an author’s books shall be scattered among those who will bid highest. I have had literary agents expostulate against my writing to authors whom they had brought me, and I have seen a certain justice in their defining the limits of the intercourse which they have created. The question is where, in justice to all parties, the limits should be placed.

Perhaps some readers need to be told that the literary agent first appeared some dozen or score of years ago, in London. He has found great uses, — great, relatively to the little industries of literature,— and great powers. The uses are in finding publishers for new authors, especially authors living away from the literary centres — often steering them away from sharks. He can also be especially useful in serializing matter: for as the periodicals pay all the way from half a cent to fifteen cents a word, it requires an expert to deal with them on behalf of average authors. Moreover, the agent can be very useful in arranging the business of a few authors popular enough to be published in both serial and book form in England, the United States, Canada, and Australia, and sometimes — occasionally through translations—in other places. Although such business could be as well, and perhaps better, arranged by a competent publisher, to such authors as have not been fortunate in their publishers or have not had confidence in them the agent has been a great convenience, and there is no doubt that at first he materially increased the incomes of some such writers. The most promising author of the present generation told me he could not do without his agent. But Tennyson, Thackeray, George Eliot, and Dickens, not to speak of all who preceded them, did without agents; and somehow the promise of the author I have quoted, who could not, has not been fulfilled. His earliest works were his best, as he frequently says himself. Perhaps some reasons may suggest themselves as we go on.

Among the first things the literary agent set himself to do, in London at least, was to break down the old relation between authors and publishers, and to make the connection mainly a question of which publisher would bid highest. “Business methods’’ being introduced, and most of the authors who had before been attached— in a double sense—to their respective publishers, being put up to the highest bidder, bidding began with a vengeance. Many a “publisher” without any of the qualities which our author justly declares essential to the publisher’s best functions, could or would bid as high as, perhaps higher than, the publisher who had most of these qualities. Young houses felt that they could gain standing, whether they gained money or not, by getting authors of standing; old houses would often “see” the bids, even at a loss, rather than let their authors go; and a few ambitious and perhaps unfriendly rivals would bid beyond all reason, to spite each other. Royalties and payments in advance of them rose wildly. The American agents were of course in the game for English authors, and the fashion spread to our own. I have just been told, reliably, I believe, that one American house pays an author five thousand dollars a year whether he writes or not, and pays him in addition a royalty of twenty per cent on all he does write. Now the publishers who have kept sane, if there are any, know that there is no profit in paying a twenty per cent royalty before a book has sold from ten to twenty thousand copies, not to speak of a five thousand dollar bonus, representing a royalty of twenty per cent on nearly seventeen thousand more.

Soon tales of the marvels the agents were accomplishing raised the mirage of a new Eldorado in the literary world, and authors flocked to the agents, and placed themselves in their untried hands as confidently as they had ever placed themselves in the hands of the longest-tested publishers. Some assumed, and perhaps some were told, that it was to the publishers’ interest to rob them (as if reputation were worth nothing in the publishing trade); but that the agent was inevitably disinterested, except that it was to his interest to get as much as he could for the author, in order to make his own commissions large.

Of course all this army of authors wanted their work serialized, though there are not periodicals enough to contain it. For a time the deft agents insisted on the purchase of serial rights as a condition of book rights, thus saving themselves the trouble of disposing of the serial rights separately, and their authors (and themselves) the risk of their not being disposed of at all; and there were publishers enough to take those risks. In the competition serial rights have been bought for the sake of securing book rights, even when the buyers had no magazine, or not enough magazines, of their own, or any definite idea of any other magazine where the purchase could be put. Often these serial rights died unpublished, and one publisher tells me that he possesses a fine collection of their mummies.

Yet, even under all this stimulus, authorship, except to a very few of its votaries, is not a money-making pursuit. Many men would rather be poor as authors than rich as anything else. But nevertheless these poor men not seldom regard their comparatively rich publishers (there are no positively rich ones) with the feeling general among the poor against the rich. A literary agent told me that among authors the feeling is quite frequent that the publisher is to be squeezed to the last possible cent. The agents have not been slow to please their clients by falling in with this feeling. Between them, the publisher has lately been treated merely as a corpus vilum to be exploited for money. The possibility of there being any thought or feeling, not to speak of aspiration, in him has been ignored. And in many cases the treatment has been richly deserved. Many of them have been tempted into the mean and short-sighted competitions that inevitably recoil; many of them have danced to any tune the agents saw fit to play; and many of them, as the one with the collection of mummies bitterly confessed to me. have been “licking the agents’ boots.” Let it not be taken, by the way, that this man’s confessions are the wails of a suffering victim. He is a capable man, who has wrenched success from the situation, while he utterly disapproved it, and blames himself for his share in upholding it. So far as I know, but one prominent publisher in England and perhaps two or three in America have kept out of the scramble. The agents’ standard plea was: “True, Mr. So-and-so is your author, but such a house offers so-and-so for his next book; what am I to do?” In at least one case the answer was: “Do what you please; the argument that another man will make a fool of himself if I don’t, does n’t appeal to me.”

At first the success of the literary agents was literally maddening. One of them had his picture published in classic drapery, and one said to a leading publisher — a man whose position compared with his as that of an established banker in high credit, with that of a new broker — that the agents were needed to see that the publishers did their duty. I do not understand that he stated who was to see that the agents did theirs.

How much the recent astounding failures in the American trade were due to the literary agents, and the British branch houses’ introduction of British advances and royalties into American conditions, is open to question. They certainly helped on the failures somewhat. There have been three serious failures in the English trade since the agent appeared, and two new houses have rapidly grown to considerable dimensions there, without, so far as I know, possessing any of the qualities considered requisite by our penitent, but, rumor says, with an influential literary agent as silent partner.

The state of affairs I have described does not look like one of stable equilibrium. The golden goose was found for the author, — a whole flock of golden geese; and of course they were killed. The number of books that authors could produce was limited, the capacity to publish them was practically unlimited. The bidders who had failed to get “the next book,” and perhaps the bidder who succeeded, came up smiling for the book after the next, and so popular authors were sold three or four unwritten books deep, nobody knowing what he was buying, nobody knowing what he was selling: for successful authors often write unsuccessful books; and they never wrote so many unsuccessful ones before. And yet I have been told that the money in these mad trades was often paid in advance of composition. The author was “relieved from all anxiety,” and overflowing with gratitude to the agent , the business genius and faithful friend, who had wrought those happy miracles.

But was the author “relieved from all anxiety ?” Many of these sales of books before they were written were made to periodicals, and for fixed dates. And when the dates came around, perhaps the author wanted to go yachting, or get sick, or indulge in some other rich man’s luxury, now that the agent had made him rich. Perhaps, even if he was not an extravagant man, circumstances in himself or near him made work painful, and good work impossible. Yet work had to be done for all this money, — generally, vastly more work than ever had to be done before,— and what sort has been done in recent years, the reader knows.

How has the literature thus turned out been fitted, both in composition and handling, to the reasonable conditions of the market ? In addition to the effect that the system has on the author’s literary production, it deprives him of benefits that he ought to have from the publisher’s practical criticism and his business enthusiasm. The number of books that can be sold is not a fixed quantity. There is no more a book fund than there is that old superstition of the economists, a “wages fund.” The amount of books sold depends more on the kind produced than probably the amount of any other means for using or killing time. It takes a pretty attractive book, in town at least, to keep many people away from other attractions. A good book may not be an attractive one. Whether it is or not, almost anybody can tell better than the author. If it is not, a good publisher is apt to see how it can be made so; and a very good publisher, how it can be made so without prejudice to its artistic quality. But to give his best advice, he must have his heart in the work, and must know not only the book, but his man, and be in sympathy with him. This is not an affair of hours or days, but of a long intimacy, such as has occasionally adorned the records of literature and human nature.

Now, as our author says, such a relation as this, once started, has no place for the literary agent. He writes: “As soon as a writer and a publisher have come into a personal relation that is mutually profitable and pleasant, a ‘go-between’ has no place. There is no legitimate function for him.”

But this should be supplemented by admitting that sometimes, in spite of the best intentions, the agent may have established a “personal relation” that is not “profitable and pleasant,” and he may then be very useful in dissolving it and seeking another. And even when the relation is profitable and pleasant, human nature being what it is, there may be, in spite of obvious dangers to harmony, a justification for a person so unbusinesslike as the author generally is, supplementing himself with a business adviser to look over contracts and royalty statements, — a sort of lawyer and auditor. I do not see how any publisher could fairly object to his closest client having an agent to go that far, — if he would stop there. But I unhesitatingly say that in carrying his functions farther, the agent has been the parent of most serious abuses has become a very serious detriment to literature and a leech on the author, sucking blood entirely out of proportion to his later services; and has already begun to defeat himself. These are hard truths, and I shall probably find it expensive to tell them; but they need telling, and I am trying to do justice on the better side of the agent’s activities as well.

The literary agent naturally wishes to have a hand in the author’s whole career, and a publisher entertaining the same desire should be slow to find fault with him. Moreover, this desire for a permanent grip on the author should not be laid entirely to avarice on the part of the literary agent, from which you and I, Reader, are happily free; but it is partly a matterof-course outcome of English ways. Over there, more than here, people leave the management of their interests to others; and the hold of those others on the interests is more permanent. If an English real-estate agent rents a house for you, he is apt to expect a future hold on that house; while lately an American agent’s efforts to claim the same thing, lost him business. But so far are we from the English ways, that an American literary agent has said to me substantially: “I won’t even take my pay in a commission on royalties, because I don’t want to depend, for a future connection with an author, on anything but his actual needs, and the quality of my work. I know the temptations.”

Those temptations, however, have no terrors for at least one English agent: for I know that an author brought up a permanent contract with him as an excuse for being dragged through a particularly disagreeable, not altogether clean, and absolutely unnecessary and (except to the agent) unprofitable piece of business.

Yet, as already indicated, if an author’s books go to a given publisher as a matter of course, the literary agent is a very “superfluous necessity " indeed. Therefore he must be more than human if he is not inclined to give a new book to a publisher different from the one who had its predecessor; and as it is to his interest to appear to earn his commissions, he naturally tries to make as big a racket as he can in disposing of each book. Lately one has tried to cover his tracks by disposing of an author’s books in couples.

But the publisher who has the present book (or the present couple), knowing that the next one, or the next couple, goes to another house, not seldom through some process that he feels un justifiable, must be more than human if he takes the interest or the advertising risks in the present book that he would if he were paving the next book’s way for his own interest instead of somebody’s else. I have heard a publisher, when told by his staff that the outlook of a new book was not as promising as expected, say: “Well, if this one doesn’t succeed, we’ll at least have the consolation of not paving the way for the next one, that Blank robbed us of.” Whether this feeling was creditable or not, it was to be reckoned with; and it was inevitably shared by advertising clerks, drummers, — the whole staff.

When I told all this very plainly, a few weeks ago, to an English agent, he had the very ready answer: “Why, I have come to America especially to try to get the scattered books of two authors into the hands of one publisher for each author.” I have not seen him since, but I was told yesterday that he had gone back without succeeding. In such a task, he certainly could not have had the heart that forces success.

And now I will reward the reader who has been patient through my much expounding and theorizing, with a pretty story illustrative of it all. There are dozens of stories like this one, but perhaps not many quite as full of charm and edification.

Some thousands of years ago, more or less, a lovely lady wrote a book, and got an agent (which is a Latin word meaning “doer”) to find publishers for it at home and across a big ocean. He sent it to another “doer” of authors and publishers, across the said ocean. This one took it to many publishers, who would not risk it, till at last he had to take it to a crusty old fellow whom men in the doer’s trade did not like, because the crusty one thought that they not only minded their business, but minded too many things beyond their business. This old man made a scanty living by picking up jewels which those who had seen them before had consigned to the dust-heap. He thought he saw some jewels between the covers of the new book, and took it at its price.

“But,”said he, “pirates will swoop down for these jewels, and the law will not punish them. Moreover,” continued the old man, “this book is not worked out as it should be. Tell the lady to work it out in certain ways that I counsel, and to change its name, and we will get the law to say that the pirates shall not touch it in its new shape; and then we can sell more copies, both because it will be a better book, and because the pirates cannot seize upon it.” The lady gave heed to the counsel of the crusty old publisher, and he sent her thousands of shekels, when without him she would not have had hundreds.

In course of time the lovely lady wrote another book, and another lady, whom in gallantry we must believe to be only less lovely than the first, went to her and said : “Behold, I am the ‘doer’ in this place for certain great men in the ‘profession’ of publishing, across the ocean; and if your first book had been published by them, they are so much greater and wiser than the crusty old man, that they would have sold twice as many copies as he. Be wise and give unto my great masters this new book of thine. The lovely lady answered : “Go to! How canst thou prove thy bold saying? The crusty old man hath instigated me to make my book better than it was, and he hath saved it from the pirates, and made for me many thousand shekels. He hath been faithful unto me, and I will be faithful unto him.”

But the doer of literature near the old man, learning these things, went to the masters of the lady second in loveliness only to her who had written the book, and said : “How many shekels will ye give in advance on account of the tribute for my lady’s second book ?” and they answered: “It is not seemly that we of our high profession should make an auction with that old man who hath already done faithful service for thy lady. He will do faithful service for her yet again.”

But the doer proceeded to do, in his subtle way. And the men of the great profession wanted the book sorely, that it might add to their fame, even if not to their store, so at last they said: “Well, if we must, we will give thee in advance four thousand shekels.” Then the doer went straightway to do the old man, and said unto him: “Lo ! other men in the great profession will let my lady have no peace, but they come to her with great, offerings for her new book. Wilt thou offer as much as they ?” And the old man answered: “So many shekels as that book will make for the lovely lady, that many shall she have ; but it is not seemly that because strange men with strange reasons crave that book, the lady should take from me piles of shekels so many that her book may perchance not restore them, and that so there will remain big holes in my little store. So much money as the book shall return unto me for her just share while it is new and men clamor for it, will I give, month by month, and not wait for the time of yearly settlement. Mayhap in that way, the lady will soon have more shekels than my reluctant brothers in the ‘profession’ have offered to advance.”

But the doer said: “The lady hath sore desire for what profane men, not in great professions like thine, call C.O.D.”And the young men who worked with that crusty old man, labored with him, and brought forth a doctrine that of late had grown of great power in the “profession,” which is to say: “Business is Business,” Business being the name of the god most worshiped in that land. And so the old man, being of much religiousness, though thinking he had not been well treated, yielded to the teachings alleged of the god, and suffered that the doer should do him. Yet it should be chronicled that no harm came to him from the doing, though much might have come but for the protection of the gods.

And then, after two or three moons, came the lovely lady, like Venus, over the foam of the sea, and the crusty old man did glad homage to her, not cherishing it against her that her doer, or her doer’s doer, had caused him to be done. And she seemed to find under his hard aspect something to make her most gracious unto him. And he put on fresh raiment, and though the sun was passing hot, encased his hands in the yellow skins of dogs, and took the lovely lady to nibble viands and sip wine; and she did talk and smile — talk and smile so sweetly that he — Oh, Paris, shepherd of Mount Ida! And they talked of all things, from the jewels on the lady’s hands to the reasons why their souls should live forever, because to each the soul of the other was so — so congenial, as the Romans said, signifying that they were born to find joy in talking together.

And among the many things they talked of was that second book. And the old man, having learned many tricks of books, told her certain tricks for the bettering of that book also, tricks which he and she joyfully did together. And she told him of a third book she would write, and indeed of a fourth, and gave him two or three little pieces which she had even then written for the third. And they made him to laugh and marvel and admire very much, and to tell her still more tricks to use in the writing of books. Moreover, she gave unto him books that she had written before the book that he had first seen, that he might counsel the putting into them of more of his strange tricks, and that he might publish them also, in form and with names that should both be for their bettering anti save them from the pirates. And among the tricks was one to make what they thought would be as great a thing as had yet been written down. And the lady too thought of new tricks; and among their tricks they had much glee, and more still of what the Romans named congeniality.

And after a season that they both said was — like the bitten tail of a terrier offered vainly for a prize — “all too short.” the lovely lady sailed back to her home, but leaving the old man a consolation, which was also like the terrier’s tail, — something, but not enough, — in that they should write much about all the things they had talked over, and many more (if any were left); and that she would, in the fullness of time, send him the new books, and the old ones with the new tricks and new names, and they should remember in them the happy hours when they had made devices for their bettering, — and should also make together many more shekels.

Of course, before the sailing of her fairy bark, they stepped down together to the front of the stage, and sang a beautiful duet, in which his lines ended with art, and heart, and smart, and part; and her lines ended with prize, and ties, and other skies, and flies, — the verb, not the substantives that get onto the sugar: they came in later.

And being parted, they wrote much to each other. And was n’t it all beautiful, and was n ’t the crusty old man proud of his “profession!”

Meanwhile the stage had been set for a new act. The fellow with green tights all over him, and a big red wig, and electric bulbs over his eyes and in his ears, — you know that fellow, — even Beelzebub, or Sathanas, for he hath many names; or mayhap even Mefisto, who hath red tights, — they began to get in their fine work. They instigated the doer and the doer’s doer, who had already done the old publisher, to do certain other things after their manner. And after they had done them, the doer’s doer came into the old publisher’s office, and said: “The lovely lady is going to write another book.”

“I’m aware of it,” said the old publisher: for he had long been peculiarly aware of it, and did not see the necessity of anybody who had not been privy to their counsels sticking in his oar.

“ What advance wilt thou agree to make on it?” asked the doer.

“Not one cent.” The old man was mad now, and did not talk figurative shekels.

“But why ? You know that you would be safe, and other publishers are offering large sums.”

“Those publishers have not the relations to this lady’s work that I have, as you know very well. My relations do not justify your trying to sell me something I have not seen, even if anything can justify such a way of doing business. It is not decent to put me on a par with gamblers who consent to such a way. I ‘saw’ their bids, indecent as the whole proceeding was, on the second book, because then I knew what the first book had done, and had also seen the second book. But my prognosis from even all that knowledge may be mistaken. Public taste is fickle, but I was willing to take the risk. Now, before the second book is tried, and before the third book is even written, you come and ask me to bid on it. This sort of thing evolved by you agents is sending literature to the devil. That may be none of my business. But it’s sending the publishing business to the devil, too, and that is my business.”

“But,” asked the agent, “is n’t it all as much the fault of the publishers as of the agents ?”

“So you say, and you ’re half right,— mainly, however, because you and your kind began by putting publishers up to it. But they’re not the sort of publishers I am. If I can’t make a living in this trade without doing that sort of thing, I’ll go into some trade that’s at least, honest enough to profess to be what it is. I’d respect myself more if I kept a professed gambling house at once, than such a publishing house.’’

“But here are these offers, — I can’t help people making them.” (He had begun, the competing publishers say, by worrying the offers out.) “ What am I to do ? I owe something to the author’s interests.”

“You may not be a wise judge of her interests, and you are working for your own. If you owe anything to her, it is to leave her where she is. You did us both a good service in establishing our relations, and you’ve been well paid for it. Your legitimate service ended there. There’s nothing more for you to do, unless by breaking the relations up. You know I will do my full duty by her, and pay her all her book warrants. Your legitimate function is ended. You can continue only to her detriment and mine. I will not be forced into taking whatever risks may be taken by anybody who needs authors worse than I do, and who will do any foolish thing to get them. I won’t advance a large sum on a manuscript before I see it, and in this case, as a matter of principle, I won’t advance anything. You ask me what you shall do. Do what you please.”

“But you may be throwing away two books. Did n’t she speak to you of still another ?”

“I don’t care if I’m throwing away two thousand. This sort of thing has got to stop, or I’ve got to.”

“Well, if all publishers took the ground you do, the agent’s lot would be in some respects a less unhappy one.”

“Yes, for then he’d be doing real services, instead of the pretended ones he’s making mischief with half the time now.

“Well, I have no authority. I must refer the matter to my principals. I’ve only acted under instructions, you know.”

The story is too long already. The results can be summed up briefly. The agent did not come near the publisher again, even with the auctioneer’s usual warning of “last call.” The third book, and a fourth, went where the American agent had got the bids. The author received four thousand dollars advance on the second book. Had her agent exacted no advance, but taken the royalties month by month, long before she got any more she would have had nearer eight thousand dollars.

The three books, if with the same publisher, could have been made to support each other in many ways that they could not with different publishers; the publisher of the first two could not push them as lavishly as he could if he had expected the third; very probably the “advance” for which the agent separated them was, like the advance on the second book, less than the publisher would have paid in monthly royalties; and the author paid the agent ten or fifteen per cent of all she got, for doing worse than nothing.

The London agent said that she decided to place her third book away from her old friend. She said the matter was entirely in her agent’s hands. The New York agent said the competing firm pestered him with bids. The competing firm said that he pestered them to get bids. The New York agent said that he closely followed the orders of the London agent. The London agent said that he gave no instructions to get bids.

The competing firm said that it never takes a book without seeing the manuscript, but that it made an exception in this case of the “third book,” and took it after seeing a third of the manuscript. The author said that they never saw a tenth of it. The competing firm said that they went for the author only to get material for their magazine. They hawked the serial right around to other magazines, and got it into none, so far as I have ever seen; and never offered the bookright, which they said was merely an in cidental consideration, to the publisher of the previous books.

The London agent said he offered the third book to the publisher of the second, before he offered it to anybody else. A New York publisher outside of the muddle read from a written memorandum that he refused the third book in London months before it was offered to the publisher of the second book. The London agent then admitted that he did so offer it, but at a “bluff price” which he knew the publisher would refuse. That “bluff price” was the one which, I learn on good authority, the agent eventually got.

The fact that each party to the proceeding tried to put the responsibility for it upon the others, shows what they all really thought of it.

Such situations are inseparable from pushing the agent’s business beyond its legitimate functions: for it unquestionably has legitimate functions, even beneficent ones. But the pretense of doing a service where none is really done, inevitably becomes underhand and deceitful, and infects all who are brought in contact with it. Its first victim is the author: his business interests are torn away from a place where they ought to support each other, and grow strong in unity, symmetry, and breadth, as long as they grow at all; they are transplanted for a similar brief, abortive experience into new soil; the care of them is shifted constantly to people unaccustomed to them, and not permitted long to accumulate knowledge or interest regarding them; and their growth in all soils is forced, until their productiveness loses in strength and quality. For all these pretended and far worse than useless services, the author is mulcted in heavy commissions to the agent so long as his books sell.

The other victim, the publisher, loses so much of the legitimate reward of his labors as is inherent in future crops; his interests in authors are narrowed to the moment and to dollars and cents; the dignity and intellectuality possible to his functions — his professional career, as distinct from his money-grubbing career — are destroyed; and his old-time friendships with Ins authors and “professional ” brethren are reduced to games of dogeat-dog.

But while much of the blame for this belongs to the literary agents, it does not all belong to them. A pursuit that requires no qualifications for admission cannot always be kept up to professional standards: if a business open to everybody is to have a professional character, it requires from such of its members as are capable of appreciating professional standards, all the more rigorous and strenuous observance of them. In the fortyodd years that I have been a publisher, there never before has been so little of that observance among the recognized members of the trade as there is to-day. And as to such relations with authors as prevailed in the days of Fields and the elder Putnam (Stampa non rupta), it is at least suggestive that while our penitent names some existing publishers because of their business talent, if did not come in his way to name any because of their sympathy with literature.


We have already somewhat anticipated our second topic, — the relations of publishers to one another, —and have to some extent indicated how those relations affect the author. As we consider them farther, more of this will appear. Our confessing publisher says: —

“It was once a matter of honor that one publisher should respect the relation established between another publisher and a writer, as a physician respects the relation established between another physician and a patient. Three or four of the best publishing houses still live and work by this code. And they have the respect of all the book world. But there are others — others who keep ‘literary drummers,’ men who go to see popular writers and solicit books. The authors of very popular books themselves also — some of them, at least — put themselves up at auction, going from publisher to publisher, or threatening to go. This is demoralization and commercialization with a vengeance. But it is the sin of the authors.”

Not. entirely theirs, I think. A little history may elucidate this matter. Considering that I am on record more than once against “Philosophical Anarchy,” it is strange for me to have to testify that never were the relations to one another of American publishers so near our author’s “professional” ideal, as for some score of years while the part of their property then most valuable (their English reprints) was unprotected by law. But sometimes, when I have stated this, l have been told that they were an exceptional body of men; and certain it is that a very different body of men soon used that absence of law to destroy the property of the “exceptional body,” and force them to work their hardest to secure an international copyright law to protect it. Thus, through the best illustration in favor of Philosophical Anarchy that I know of, it was again proved impracticable in an unphilosophical world.

At first American publishing consisted principally in reprinting British works as they could be got. At the outset they were seldom paid for, and American publishers often reprinted on one another. As anybody who could get a printer to trust him or unite with him could print an English book, it soon became a matter of selfinterest among American publishers to respect one another’s rights: it gradually became the custom to leave the first publisher of an English reprint undisturbed, and to respect arrangements with British authors, and then to leave an author’s later books to the publisher who had introduced him. This practice extended to relations with American authors, and from about 1870 to 1890, no American publisher, among the first dozen, would have been more apt to think of approaching an author identified with another publisher, than men in other professions would be to think of approaching one another’s clients.

But, as already indicated, this state of things was top ideal to be general or permanent. Soon arose a lot of jackals who took no risks on new British authors, but whenever one made a success, issued a cheap edition of his book in competition with the house which had taken the risk of the initial edition. Although the international copyright law about cleaned these gentry out, — so many of them as had survived their mutual throat-cutting, — they were succeeded among the publishers who take risks, by some who had not grown up under the old traditions of courtesy, and who, as soon as another’s risk on a new author is justified, exert every means, from the dinner-table to the auction block, to get hold of the author. To the credit of the “profession,” it can be said that the three houses most active in this way—who turn up as regularly as the three interesting Anabaptists turn up in Meyerbeer’s Prophet— are in a sense new houses: one of them is literally new, another is an old house under new management, and the third is new in the publication of general literature. While the pirates against whom the international copyright law was leveled were generally unknown in the society of gentlemen, these successors belong to the “profession” and the best clubs.

Such is the result of putting the rude hand of law to the work which before had been done by the gentle hand of courtesy. The law has been abundantly justified, but its introduction, like the introduction of all improved machinery, has wrought much incidental harm. The kind of competition il has engendered must in time destroy itself: it is not only suicidal to the interests of the publishers, but it is also destructive of that continuity of relation between authors and publishers which is of at least as much importance to the authors as to the publishers. Much of this was because the literary agent got in his fine work; and because the security of literary property bought in London led to the placing there of many American publishers’ agents (some have since been withdrawn), who, being generally young, emulous, and ambitious to justify themselves, would do almost anything to secure an author. The fashions spread from there to America, until now there remain only a scant half dozen houses governed in their relations with one another by what were once, and perhaps should be still, regarded as the instincts of gentlemen.

And yet these instincts sometimes lead to unexpected trouble. For instance: an eminent author and valued friend of mine includes in his big intellectual outfit some strong business capacities. An agent of another valued friend — a publisher — tried to get a book from this author. The author told me that the other house had been after him, and that he had concluded to give his book to the higher bidder. I wrote at once that I would not do business in that unprofessional way, and then went to ask my publishing friend if we were to follow the practices of some newer men, and go after each others’ authors, He said: “Of course not!” disclaimed the act of his agent, and added that he had decided before I came, as I had decided, not to go into any such auction as proposed. But whoever had the writing of his letter announcing this decision to the author, put the decision on the ground that I had objected to their competing. My author-friend wrote me that I had gotten up a boycotting conspiracy against him, and he sent his book to a third house. It was long before I found out how the matter had been represented from the office of my publisher-friend. When I did (through the peace-making labors of a common friend of the author and myself, at whose house we had often met), the necessary explanations were made; I confessed that I never before had seen “professional courtesy” quite from the author’s point of view; harmony at least was restored, and he sent me his next book.

It’s a hard question, this of reconciling the author’s right to the benefits of competition with the maintenance of anything like professional courtesy between publishers. But how about the same question among lawyers and doctors ? A continuity of relation is as important in the one case as in the others. An intelligent publisher will do justice, even as a matter of mere business policy, without needing to be forced by competition. But certainly professional courtesy should not be carried as far as I once carried it in my young and quixotic days, when an eminent author brought me a work, of his own accord, and I declined it because he would not assert that he had cause of complaint against his then publisher. He now publishes “all over the place,” and of course has no publisher with any abiding interest in him; and his books do not support each other as they would if tied together. Partly in consequence of this, his sales are small, though his fame is large.


We now come to our third topic, the relations of the publisher to his market, and the effect of them upon the author.

A notable feature of recent publishing has been the growth of advertising, and a consideration of it, though not apt to be as interesting as that of some other features, may be at least as instructive.

Our author begins his treatment of it by saying: —

“About the advertising of books nobody knows anything.” I have to take issue at the outset with this statement. There are several things known about the advertising of books, —among them, that it must be paid for, whether it repays or not; that it can repay only through the books that would not be sold without it; that probably more of it, in proportion to sales, is now done for books than for any other merchandise; and that it is like poking the fire, — everybody (but our author) believes he can do it better than anybody else.

Before illustrating this last point by my own beliefs, I may give a more amusing illustration from recent experience. An American woman became enthusiastic over a novel by an English woman, and wanted to do all she could for its success. Among other efforts, she warned the author that her American publishers were “smothering it” with inadequate advertising. The letter crossed one from the author to her American publishers, saying that, her English publisher (presumably a competent and not over-lenient judge), who had just returned from a visit to America, “says you are advertising it splendidly.” The book is a brilliant success in America, and it probably would have been without any advertising at all.

Our author, despite his disclaimer, goes on to show that he knows several more things about advertising. In various ways he substantially supports the following propositions, which I have distilled from his expressions: —

1. Books cannot pay for advertising, like things which everybody uses and which are sold everywhere.

2. Books are not generally long-lived: so their advertising must do its work in a short time or not at all.

3. Some books do not need advertising.

4. Some books cannot be made to sell by advertising.

5. The sale of some books can be helped by advertising.

6. There is great danger of a publisher advertising too much.

7. It is not wise to advertise before a book shows its quality, on the chance that the book will pay for it.

On this point our author goes so far as to say: “I have sometimes thought that your upright publisher, if there be one, would risk nothing in advertising a new book by an unknown writer, until the book began itself to show some vitality in the market.”

He has “sometimes thought!” Why, I have been in business over forty years, and I never thought anything else, if by “nothing” is to be understood nothing beyond enough to let the makers of opinion know that such a book exists.

Of the opposite policy, our author says very wisely : “It is only now and then that a novel has a big ‘run’ by this method. The public does not see the hundreds of failures. It sees only the occasional accidental success. . . . This is not publishing. It is not even commercialism. It is a form of gambling.”

Now, despite our author’s modesty, those seven propositions seem to contain a pretty good theory of book advertising. Let us consider them more fully. There are three classes of books: the first class do not need advertising; the second class cannot be helped by it; and the third class can. Much money spent on class one is wasted: every expert knows that there was no more money spent in advertising Called Back, Ben Hur, David Harum, The Honorable Peter Stirling, Looking Backward, or The Prisoner of Zenda, than in advertising the general run of books. All money spent on class two is wasted. Money can be profitably spent, then, only on class three.

Yet these classes shade into one another, and there is no way of telling in advance to which class books by new and doubtful authors belong: experiments must be tried, and the loss on them must be faced. Yet there is a strong chance against any one such book responding; and if it appears to respond, there is a strong chance that it is only the book’s native strength asserting itself, and that it belongs in class one, and does not need much advertising after all. The only dead certainties are that the advertising must be paid for, whether the book responds or not, and that the response will not last long, unless it lasts on the inherent power of the book, which puts it above need of much advertising.

“But,” would say the advertising agents, “you prove too much: the reviews would start such a book : so it needs no advertising at all.”

My answer would be: I believe that to be nearer the case than most people would think. But a little advertising, to remind busy people, may not be a waste, whatever much may be.

Plainly, then, experiments should be tried very tentatively, stopped as soon as a book is found not to need advertising or not to respond to it, and then continued tentatively on others.

Now I am going to make a very startling assertion, which probably the majority of publishers will not at first sight agree with, — the sales of books that do not need much advertising constitute the bulk of the miscellaneous publishing business, and nearly all of the business done at a profit; while books that will not return dollar for dollar spent in advertising, make up the bulk of the remainder. If this is true, my class three, that will return a profit on advertising, cannot be a very large class. The advertiser’s art, then, is in recognizing this minor class; but generally he employs that art so little, that his greatest expense is wasted on the other classes.

I know a book which, after trial, appeared unable to respond. When its fate seemed fixed, one of the firm publishing it read it for the first time, and concluded that, after all, it must be able to respond. He ordered it advertised more, and it did respond, but only about enough to return the advertising; and when the advertising stopped, the sales stopped. He only exchanged one dollar for another, if indeed he did as well as that; and he had his labor for his pains. The experiment only proved, as nearly all such experiments do, that the book belonged where the first experiment had put it, among those unable to respond. The same was true of the book touching which I have quoted some correspondence with a young author. I believe the cases are typical of the vast majority of books.

What is the reasonable average amount to experiment with? On a book by an unknown or doubtful author (and the vast majority of books published are by such), before the reviews come out, I say little, if any: for nobody will pay any attention before a favorable review can be quoted, unless the publisher himself can give a very convincing puff, and get a skeptical world to believe it disinterested — a likely case! In this I may be taking issue with our penitent, who has a very slight opinion of the effect of reviews,— apparently slighter, even, than my opinion of the effect of advertising. If there is not enough favorable reviewing to quote, advertising money would better be saved, and the book let go to its predestined death, — unless the author’s saying that the death was the publisher’s fault, is more damage than the loss of the advertising money.

One of my staff has asked: “How would this affect the bookseller’s first orders?” and others may ask the same question. My answer is that, for a book by an unknown author, the difference would be too small to be worth taking into account, unless the orders are inflated by means — including premature advertising — that cost more than they effect. A few books will be ordered, anyhow, as our author points out, before any considerable advertising would begin, even if reviews were not waited for.

But when there is something to go on, either from an author’s reputation, or from notices, what is a reasonable amount to start the advertising experiment with ? Has the reader patience for a few figures ? A liberal advertiser told me: “When I want to boom a book, I start with $800;” but of course he does not often dare very early to boom an uncertain book. We were discussing one whose predecessor had sold some 3000 copies, and he thought $200 a reasonable start for it. That amount will make the “opinion-makers” well aware of a book’s existence and character, and seems a fair one to assume for an average. But it would use up all the profits of a $1.50 novel selling 2000 copies, after plates and its share of office expenses are paid, it is twice too much to risk on the four books out of five that will not average 2000 apiece. The trouble is to know which four, A generation ago nobody thought of starting an average book with more than half of $200, and the books in the “Leisure Hour Series ” did very well on less than half. But advertising cost less then than now (largely because the publishers have lavishly increased the demand for it), and the New York papers used to do the work for the West, which they do not now. Well, let us be bold and enterprising: for that’s the present fashion, and risk $300 on each book. Where do we come out ? Take as an example a house that advertises thirty new books a year. As we have figured, $9000 would be a very liberal amount for it to spend in initial advertising before books show to which class they belong.

But our author says, “Even a small general publishing house must spend as much as $30,000 or $50,000 a year, in general advertising,” and a house advertising thirty books a year, is not a very small one. Then such a house either wastes money on classes one and two, that do not need advertising or will not respond to it, or spends from $20,000 to $40,000 a year on class three,™more than twice as much on a very minor part of its sales, as on all the rest. This may be wise, but is it probably so ? Of course all figuring on the question must be based on assumptions and guess-work, and results can at best be but conjectural. The best figuring I can do converges toward indications that, with the output we have been considering, a house advertising thirty books a year may, with fair success, reach a year’s sale of about 200,000 copies of them, of which 80,000 would be fairly apt to come in class three. Half of these, say40,000, could reasonably be expected to pay for their advertising. A net profit on them, exclusive of advertising, would reasonably be about $15,000; then the “small publishing house” would, according to our author’s figures, have to pay out of this $15,000, from $20,000 to $40,000 in advertising.

Now I have proved too much, or our author has asserted an error, or our publishing house has failed. Each is probably the case. But I figured according to my best knowledge, throwing all doubtful details against the conclusion reached, and without any idea where I was coming out, except the general idea that most publishers advertise vastly more than theycan afford.

But perhaps our author’s statement was erroneous, or at least needs some qualification. When he wrote of small houses spending from $30,000 to $50,000, and a big house spending $250,000, he probably included what was spent on advertising magazines, and at full prices in the pages of the advertiser’s own magazines, and in circulars and postage, and, I suspect, in some cases on drummers, schoolbook agents, and even on advertising dinners. Now, the dozen publishers who meet at monthly lunches in New York are the leaders of the trade there, and I know that at least one of them never spent over $25,000 in any one year in newspaper and periodical advertising of books; I have excellent reason to believe that a second never did; and that a third, whom I suspect of being one of the richest men in the group, never spent half of it. And the “income bonds” of the $250,000 advertiser have lately been offered at fifteen cents on the dollar!

I cannot but think that lately many American publishers were as crazy about advertising as the Dutch ever were about tulips, or the French about the Mississippi Bubble. This belief is supported by the facts that they are now advertising much less; that some think they are still advertising too much, but nevertheless let competition force them to it; and that none, so far as I know, think they are advertising too little. It is not long since the proprietor of the paper in which probably they advertised most, used to laugh at them, saying: “But I think I can stand it as long as they can.” I stale this on the authority of one of his staff. He may laugh still, for all I know: he is not without cause.

The history of the craze was substantially this: Some years ago a bookseller published a novel. All booksellers want to publish (just as all publishers want to criticise, and all critics want to create); and all booksellers think that publishers do not advertise enough. This one did advertise enough, — more than anybody had ever advertised before. His novel reached an enormous sale, and he attributed it to the advertising, He published more novels, and advertised them in the same way. Some of them took: he had a keen scent for novels that would take, but he believed that they took because of the advertising. He noticed a phenomenon which he reported to an author, and the author reported it to me. As nearly as I can, I reproduce the words; they were: “I set aside, for advertising, a sum, say $50,000.” ($50,000 would absorb the profits, after royalties and reasonable office expenses were paid, of at least 250,000 books, and I doubt if one in five of this man’s books, or any other man’s, have sold 250,000. But the author told me $50,000, whether the bookseller told him that amount or not.) The story went on: “I spend, say, $4000, and the book hardly moves. I spend $4000 more, and the movement is noticeable. I spend $4000 more, and the movement is rapid. I spend $4000 more, and it becomes a perfect rush. I spend the rest of the $50,000, and the rush keeps up.” He made these remarks quite early in his experience. He probably did not tell the fact that most of the great “ sellers ” before his day went through something the same course, without having more money than usual spent on advertising them, — sold very little until they began to find themselves, or the public began to find them. Peter Stirling’s third year was its best, — long after anybody had thought of advertising it. Its experience was perhaps extreme, but it was quite of the usual kind. That of Ben Hur I understand to have been substantially the same.

The first boomer’s booming, of course, made imitators, and while they were making so much noise, nobody else could be heard without making a good deal of noise too: so publishers generally began increasing their advertising. In this advertising avalanche, the two greatest and oldest houses went under, not mainly because of it, perhaps, but who shall say which pound turns the scale?

Nevertheless, advertising became a, charm, a fetich, a “great medicine,” a thing to be taken whenever anything went wrong. One day the papers contained the intelligence that a great house had failed; the next day The Times had a full-page advertisement from it; and within two or three days, one or two more, unless my memory is at fault. Competition spread the rage. After the great houses went down, the struggle for the front place among the survivors settled down into a duel. If one combatant took half a page of The Times, in the next issue the other had a page. If one had a page, the other took two. Once, I think, one of them had three. Now, a page in The Times is all very well for a department store that appeals to everybody, and does more business than all the advertising publishers put together, but these publishers’ flinging pages at each other had no more real “business” in it, than if they had competed in the size of their watchchains or scarf-pins, and some slow people thought it about as dignified; but most of the rest of the “profession” followed the fashion the two and the original boomer had set. When I joked one of the leaders about it, he said: “Well, this year I’ve spent only $25,000 more than usual.” Now in publishing, $25,000 is a good deal of money. Of course it is not much in Wall Street, but there are not a dozen publishers in America who ever averaged that amount of clear annual profit out of publishing widely advertised books; I doubt if there are six; I should not be surprised if there were not one. Half a dozen who publish “miscellaneous books” have made as much, — several times as much, but it has been contributed to by books that were not of the kind extensively advertised. Our author says: “There is not a publisher in the United States who is to-day making any large sum of money on his general trade.”

Moreover, despite the big figures of our boomer, and even of our confessing publisher, $25,000 is a big fraction of what any publisher has spent in book advertising in one year, even in the mad days.

The authors have been as wild as the publishers, or would have been if they were in the publishers’ case, — the money they propose to spend, their own, and the only certain profit, somebody’s else. I have known at least two to propose as a condition of entrusting publishers with books, that more should be spent on advertising them than I believe to have been the entire profits of their next preceding books. Probably the authors had not figured on the situation; and I think I have known cases where publishers did not seem to figure any more than these authors did.

Well, I have learned from sources that convince me, that the discoverer of the magic of advertising has not found his later experience confirmatory of his earlier, and I know that for some reason he does not advertise nearly as much as he did. But his authors have made money: for, unless I read all the signs wrongly, he, generous sold, has spent two dollars that he might give them one. For this, in these latter days, are we publishers !

Much observation and not a few figures satisfy me that even in a conservative house, from three quarters of the new books more money goes to the advertising mediums, and even to the muchpitied author,than to the publisher ; and that from one book out of five, money goes to them and merely goes away from him.

In England they have been bitten by the same mania. A brief story will sufficiently illustrate its influence on both authors and publishers. A very enterprising London publisher lately told me that he had spent a large sum filling the front page of a London daily paper with an advertisement of a certain book. I exclaimed: “Why, great Heavens, man, have you sunk to our level ? And do you expect to get your money back ? ” His answer was (I think I can give it substantially verbatim): “No, I shan’t get the money back directly, but it will give authors a great, idea of my enterprise, and I may get one or two big ones to pay for it.” Now, if his judgment was sound (and it generally is), English authors have been commercialized by some influence, so that they can now be expected to be attracted by a style of advertising which would have repelled them a dozen years ago. And the English literature of our generation (not to speak of the American) abundantly illustrates the proposition.

Yet it is wise to advertise some things widely, why not books ? Glance back at the first three propositions supported by our author, and then consider what things are most advertised, — patent medicines, drinks, tobaccos, food stuffs, clothes, real estate, investments, and other things demanded by everybody with money to pay for them.

There is the advertising that appeals to the eye, and the advertising that, appeals to the intelligence. One shapes popular habit, independently of deliberation : everybody has eyes, and everybody uses food and shoes; so this kind of advertising may take root anywhere, and it pays to scatter it.

But the eighty million people using food and shoes in the United States did not include a hundred thousand who would buy a single book advertised last year, and probably do not include fifty thousand who spend as much on books as they do on shoes. Whatever the number, they are the very people least affected by the sort of advertising that appeals to habit. Let them know sufficiently clearly what there is in the market that they may care for, and they will make up their minds whether they want it or not; and the more damnable iteration you bother them with, the more apt you will be to turn them away. Very little advertising beyond that which appeals to the intelligence can pay for itself if addressed to them.

Moreover, books are generally shortlived. Not only does a small portion of the public want any one book, but it does not “want that little long.” It takes longer than most books live to advertise into a paying reputation even a shoe or a soap — or any other thing which everybody wants; and the few books that, do live that long, are those that do not need advertising at all.

In the things most, widely advertised, too, there is most competition, But the competition between books is relatively small. A book is a thing by itself: there is nothing like it, as one shoe is like another, or as one kind of whiskey is like another. Intelligent book buyers want that book; no other will fill its place; no amount of advertising of another will substitute it.

The next lower class of buyers, and a very large and respectable one, — with a love of books, but without faculty or energy always to make up their own minds, — depend largely upon the advice of their booksellers; but these booksellers often are able to make up their own minds, and are comparatively little influenced by advertising. On the other hand, however, one of the most intelligent of them thinks that so far as the readers make up their own minds, they are influenced more by a flaring advertisement than by a full and capable review: they will not read the review, while the big letters of the advertisement impress them at a glance. These very big letters, however, under normal conditions of advertising, — conditions which the trade has wandered away from, but, I think, is drifting back to, — arouse the skepticism of the bookseller, who does more to make up such a reader’s mind than the reader does himself.

Yet many buyers of the lower range of books are largely influenced by claptrap and imitation. But the amount of money necessary to affect this grade of mind, regarding even a thing that everybody wants, is so great that the booming publishers themselves do not approximate it. More than a generation ago, when advertising cost vastly less than it does now, and vastly less was needed for any special result, a wholesale druggist told me that a concern in his line which had a very good thing for universal and persistent use, failed because they had only $250,000 to advertise it.

Professor Cooley says that competition varies inversely as the intelligence and character of the customers appealed to. In other words, it is not on books alone that people of intelligence and character make up their own minds. What he says is as true of competition in advertising, as of any other competition. Is it too much to say that the vulgarest things are most widely advertised, and that wide advertising, while it has its justifications, inevitably has, unless it conveys knowledge that people actually want, a note of vulgarity? Is there anything more alien to its coarser features than books ? And yet, of late years, the broadside page, the loudest type, the showiest pictures, the street-car sign, even the circus form of poster, have been dragged into the advertising of books, till now it has got to the point where many discriminating people discriminate against books much advertised.

But although, for all these reasons, publishers’ advertisements seem to be in great part wasted as far as the large majority of the public is concerned, they can appeal to their special public through special organs. Yet, here is so good a publisher as our penitent plainly is, saying, “The old-fashioned way was to insert a brief, simple, dignified announcement of every book, as is still done in The Spectator, of London, for example. Good; but such an advertisement does n’t go very far. A very few thousand persons see it. They wait until the books are reviewed or till some friend or authority speaks about them. For this perfectly good reason, some publishers do not insert many advertisements in those publications that go only to the literary class, — they are to a degree superfluous. Those that are inserted, are inserted to give the publishers and the books a certain ‘standing,’ and to keep pleasant the relations between the publishers and these journals.”

Now I am bold enough to believe that our author’s “perfectly good reason” is entirely overborne by vastly better ones, —that those “very few thousand persons” are the only persons to whom books can be profitably advertised; and that a book’s fate is sealed by what is said about it by them; in other words, by the “friend or authority” most readers “wait for.” The friend or authority naturally belongs among those who habitually read book advertisements, and look into the new books; one of them recommends one book, and one another; they differ as much as the doctors; they praise all the way from The Crisis to the Synthetic Philosophy; but what they say determines what books people are going to begin to buy. After they have begun to buy, the general opinion decides what books are going to be favorably talked about, and are going to continue to sell. No advertising materially influences this general verdict. Any amount of it that can be done, in a dozen or two papers, must generally, even in the matter of space, be a trifle beside the reviews in hundreds of papers ; and microscopic beside the reviews, favorable or unfavorable, in general conversation. And yet even the immense mass of printed reviews has little influence. Our author says it has none. Why, then, spend large amounts of money for advertising space that, compared with the review-space, is a trifle, and must have even less relative influence? The sales of many books can be somewhat influenced by keeping the public reminded of them, as they are reminded that they “needa biscuit,” — the more vulgar the public, the more vulgar the reminder,— but not with as profitable results, seldom with any profitable results at all; often, as our author states again and again, with fatal loss.

It would appear, then, unless there is some big flaw in the reasoning, that the wide advertising lately indulged in by the publishers is in imitation of methods which, though very successful regarding some other utilities, are falsely reasoned regarding books; and that they are falsely reasoned is doubly indicated by their being in entire disregard of all previous experience, by their being now distinctly on the decline, and by there having been, as shown, abundant adventitious causes for their meteoric appearance.

The state of affairs I have described in connection with the advertising craze, was also promoted by the passage of the International Copyright Law. One unquestionable result of that law was that, instead of mainly relying on English fiction as before, America “found herself:” within a decade after the passage of the law, American novels reached enormous sales. Moreover, as there was no longer fear of the reprinter, these novels were issued in much more substantial form and at much higher prices than the non-copyright English ones had generally been, and publication of them was so profitable as to attract new publishers and authors. A lot of adventurers, including established men of adventurous disposition, were led to think they had found still another Eldorado, and they began a competition fiercer than ever before dreamed of, in advertising, drumming, discounts, credits, royalties, and advances to authors. In the latter particular, English standards had been, as already said, introduced by the English literary agents, and the American agents of British houses, and introduced in spite of the fact that, while American prices are the same, American drumming, advertising, and transporting have to be done over much larger territory, and American competitive spirit has bred much larger discounts. Hardly any houses escaped the infection of these things. The most dignified and conservative were forced into some of the antics of the most reckless: unless they performed them, authors thought that they lacked enterprise, and went to those whose “enterprise” was beyond all question.

It need hardly be said that when the new raw country “found itself” in literature, the literature was of a corresponding kind. As far as selling power was concerned, the centre of literary production moved to the centre of population, away from the coast, which had been more directly under the influence of the culture accumulated in the older world. At first the stir created by the enormous sales, acting under the “Laws of Imitation,” set many people reading, if only out of curiosity, books to which they would not ordinarily have condescended; and made the larger Undiscriminating hosts confine themselves to these books, to the loss of their old chance of occasionally lighting on better ones. When booming was at its height, a retailer told me: “My customers come in and ask ‘What’s the seller?' and take it.” All this has made it more and more difficult to get books that are not “sellers” fairly before the public, without an amount of advertising, drumming, discounts, and credits, that makes them unprofitable; or even, with all those risks, to sell them in profitable numbers. Literature, in fact, is (as Dr. Holmes would perhaps have condescended to say) crowded into the cellar, and in all seriousness, its situation is dark enough to justify the pun.

Moreover, as any “saleslady” can identify and sell a “seller” as well as the most accomplished bibliopole, the book business has gone largely, if not mainly, into the department stores. Certainly, despite the great increase of population during the last fifteen years, the bookstores have not increased, nor have the educated booksellers, who are almost as good guides as the educated librarians.

The increased number of authors led to an increased number of great “ sellers;” but the population and the total number of books read did not keep pace with the increase of authors: therefore, as the total sales had to be divided among an increased number of writers, the sale of each particular book began to diminish. The diminution appears to have been increased by a falling-off in the fiction reading habit, — or at least the habit of reading such fiction. The total result was lately indicated to me by a publisher who issues as many “sellers” as anybody, in the remark that: “Lately, the hundred-thousand-men have had to put up with sales of twenty-five thousand.” But at the rate most publishers have lately been advertising and paying advances, about the same money is apt to be spent on a 25,000 book as on a 100,000 book. The profit, therefore, has got to begin somewhere in the 75,000 that are not sold. As a consequence, advertising has already diminished, and, apparently, drumming, discounts, “advances,” and royalties have got to follow: for a cure at the other end, by forcing prices up to meet all this extravagance, seems, in spite of our author’s opinion, out of the question.

There is some hope, however, in the fact that now there is faintly visible a tendency to inquire regarding a book: “Is it a seller?” and to avoid it if it is. The present seller, too, is a great advance on the “yellow-covered literature” of the same class of readers of a generation ago. But it will take yet a long time to get the enormous public which is at last educated up to the seller, educated beyond it to a different sort of seller. On the other hand, many of the other class of readers have been brought down to the seller, partly by the force of imitation, as illustrated by my bookseller’s customers, and partly by the increased rarity of anything better, some of the reasons for which we have seen.

The history we have surveyed certainly justifies our penitent in saying: — “Authorship and publishing — the whole business of producing contemporaneous literature — has for the moment a decided commercial squint.”

But he adds: “It would be wrong to say, as one sometimes hears it said, that it has been degraded; for it has probably not suffered as nearly a complete commercialization as the law has suffered, for instance.”

I fail to see the sequitur, and I think that his admission does not state the gravity of the case. I think that he puts it so mildly because he evidently began business when the commercializing was well under way, and therefore does not appreciate the total increase of it. My opinion, based upon a very long experience, is that the remarkable concurrence of the many exceptional conditions I have described, — the piracy under the old non-copyright license, the chaos of the transition from the old license to the new law, the advertising mania, the mad competition stimulated by the literary agent,— has produced a strange and abnormal condition in publishing, and that this condition is destructive and cannot last. It has already wrought great ruin, and how much more ruin it must work before a healthy condition can arise, and how that ruin can be minimized, is matter for anxious consideration. One class of remedies is clear, if the trade has character enough to apply them, — more subordination of the present to the future, more avoidance of petty games that two can play at, more faith in the business value of the golden rule, more feeling for the higher possibilities of their “profession,” and more plain, homely, commonplace self-respect. The publishers probably have their human share of the needed virtues; but they have been strangely and sorely tried.

During all this time of upheaval and chaos, the experiments that make up the miscellaneous publishing business, even in the calmest times, have grown much more expensive. As our author indicates, drumming has been introduced, and advertising has been quadrupled, —• doubled both in cost and volume,— dummies are sent out with the drummers, posters have become works of art, and each novel must have a fifty-dollar coverdesign, where a couple of dollars’ worth of lettering used to fill the bill. Yet not as many books pay for themselves as did before; but the few that do sell, sell more widely, and thus may still do their share to pay the losses and expenses on the rest. Hence the mad quest of the golden seller, the mad payment to the man who has once produced it, and the mad advertising of doubtful books in the hope of creating the seller, — by pictures, dummies, big letters and other methods fit only for candy, whiskey, tobacco, and other articles of unlimited sale. All this reacts, as has been explained, to crush out all books but the seller.

Even temperately conducted, the miscellaneous publishing business —the kind that advertises and, to a large extent, the kind that drums — is an extremely hazardous business. A hazardous business must select its risks carefully, and therefore cannot successfully be a large one, relative to its rate of possible profit. At its wisest, it must be a small business with large margins for profits. The only living American publisher whom I know to have retired with a competence was in a business conducted on this principle, and his chief reason for retiring was the recent tendency to drive publishing into a large business with small margins for profit. Such a business is practicable in staples, for which there is always a market; but is not practicable for experimental books, many of which sell virtually not at all, and three quarters of which, even in the hands of the wisest experimenter or the wildest boomer, do not sell enough to pay for outlay and trouble. Until this very obvious lesson is learned, more houses must fail, or depend upon other publishing than that of miscellaneous books.

As to the authors: largely at the expense of the publishers who have been paying abnormal advertising bills, abnormal advances, and abnormal royalties, authorship has become a business to get rich in. The literature of our mother tongue has been commercialized to an extent not dreamed of in any time of which I have knowledge; and—let him who will, say post hoc propter hoc — within our generation our literature has fallen to a lower estate than it knew for generations before. The priest who entered the temple with bowed head and under the vow of poverty has been replaced by the man with the yacht and the motor-car. This morning I saw that an author of national, probably international, reputation is entered to ride in a horse race. Certainly the author is seeking more and more the amusements and the society that are alien to his art, and his reverence for his art is gone.

Yet the unsuccessful authors are a larger majority than before. More and more men have taken up the profession as a means of livelihood, and entered upon what generally proves a most oppressive slavery — the dependence of the man of only average power upon his pen for daily bread. Few men have ever done it happily. Until these new, and, I trust, transient, conditions, most good authors, from Shakespeare down, have had other resources. There are some pursuits in which it is almost as dangerous to make money the main end, as, in I the general conduct of life, if is to make personal happiness the main end; and the higher the pursuit, the greater the danger.

To follow classic precedent, and end where we began, even if by returning to smaller things: along with the deterioration in literature, — whether independently, or as cause, or as effect, — the trade of publishing has come to a pass such that great changes must take place before it can deserve the name of “profession,” and before the suggestion in connection with it of anything like “glory,’’can cease to sadden more than it inspires.

  1. A Publisher’s Confession. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1904.