Book Publishing: The Changes I’ve Seen

A New Yorker who graduated from Columbia, ALFRED A. KNOPF is the originator of the Borzoi imprint. His first catalogue of new books, published in 1915, represented a determined effort to present to Americans the works of great European writers, and from that day his standards in the selection and manufacture of books have been envied by many and equaled by few.

As I write this I am completing my sixty-fifth year. Forty-five years ago I went to work as a clerk in the accounting department of Doubleday Page and Company at Garden City, New York. It was my first job in the publishing business and I have been in that business ever since.

It was a good business in those days. Authors wrote, publishers published, and bookstores sold. Publishers knew what they wanted — and frequently they didn’t want what we today would say they should have wanted (think of Doubleday and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie) — and authors supplied it, with at least a technical competence. Editors existed, but it seemed to me they handled authors (as people — and creators, if you will) rather than manuscripts. Certainly they didn’t, as they so commonly do now, conduct elaborate correspondence courses with would-be and indeed practicing novelists.

Then new publishers began to appear, competition for publishable books became keener, costs increased steadily, and the spread between the sale of the average book and the best seller grew greater. Book clubs appeared with their large cash guarantees for a few titles each year, guarantees divided equally between author and publisher; the poor became poorer, and the rich richer, and the jackpot ever bigger.

Now a lot of people believe that as a result of all this many writers write with a major book club in mind. I have never believed this and do not believe it now. The choices of the clubs are too erratic for anyone to know in advance what their judges will select.

The interest of booksellers in pushing individual titles that were not foreordained best sellers declined steadily; the attitude of a Pittsburgh bookseller who told me that his counters were simply places where he displayed books — if they didn’t sell that was no affair of his; there was nothing he should be expected to do about it — is now more the rule than the exception. And so it becomes more and more difficult to get a reasonable hearing for a book that is simply good - not a world-shaking masterpiece, not the choice of a major book club, not to be made into a supercolossal movie, but just a good book in which its publisher and author both believe and which several thousand Americans would probably read with pleasure and profit if they ever laid hold of it.

During recent years public libraries and government agencies have bulked increasingly important in book sales. This is all to the good — the bigger the budgets of our libraries the better for all of us. But libraries can never make an author. Only booksellers can do this essential job.

Despite all I have said, publishers, if not booksellers, are prospering these days, but I am sure none of us are as prosperous as we ought to be, considering the general state of our economy and the rapid growth of population and of so-called education. Our difficulty, it seems to me, is that however bad times become — and they were very bad indeed twenty-five years ago — they never become bad enough to force the book trade to effect sensible and fundamental changes of basic policy. We always dress the wound by applying a new bandage over the old soiled one.

When I was a young publisher I attended booksellers’ conventions regularly. The eternal argument was that a 40 per cent discount would make everything hunky-dory. After perhaps a decade of this agitation, the 40 per cent discount became almost universal. But all the troubles of the bookseller remained. We have added the privilege of the return of all unsold stock after a certain period of time — usually from six months to a year from date of publication. We cannot speak of sales even to authors any more until after their books have been out for at least six months. We are really lending books to our customers, though they do pay us for stock that they will return later on for credit, and some publishers do charge 10 per cent for the privilege, with the result that much of the time our inventory is gone today and here tomorrow.

WHAT is wrong? The fundamental trouble, I think, is that people concerned with books, and I mean publishers, booksellers, and authors, have never succeeded in gaining from the general public the kind of fundamental respect for the book that it deserves. People who can well afford to buy books and who wouldn’t dream of borrowing any other purchasable object feel no compunction about borrowing a book. Though the price of a book has risen during the past quarter century less than almost any other service or commodity you can think of, the well to do constantly complain that books cost too much.

Booksellers, it seems to me, fall down badly in failing to make the more literate members of their community realize that they are there and on the job. Thus, an acquaintance phoned me some months ago to say that he had bought many of our well-known series, Great Lives in Brief. He wanted three to give as a gift and he needed them promptly. He had asked for them at a store that bears perhaps the proudest name among booksellers. He was told they were not in stock, and the clerk did not even offer to try to get them for him.

Now publishers do not like to sell books at retail. If the book trade presented itself effectively to the consuming public they would never be expected to do this sort of business. I suspect that the source of this difficulty lies in the fact that almost alone as an industry book people pay no attention whatever to the ultimate consumer, on whose dollars we all live. I am a pretty old timer as publishers go, and I have sat in at many conferences of authors, publishers, booksellers, and even librarians. But I have never been at a single meeting in which the interests of the book-buying public were so much as mentioned, much less discussed. Authors worry about their problems, booksellers about theirs, and publishers and librarians about theirs. But the only break the consumer gets is when his bookseller persuades him to place an advance order for a desirable book on which the publisher has set a special pre-publication price.

That is where the book clubs come into the picture, for they have operated from the beginning on the assumption that the consumer is king, and every bit of their enormous promotion and advertising is addressed to the consumer and designed to give the consumer something for much less than he would have to pay for it anywhere else. And book clubs, obviously, are here to stay.

Since publishers are often blamed by booksellers for coöperating with book clubs as they do, a couple of our early experiences with them are not without significance. When the Literary Guild was very young, Carl Van Doren wanted to use a book of ours — a volume of short stories. As bookstore agitation against the Guild was very strong at the time, we declined the Guild’s offer even though we thus deprived the author of a fair sum of money. We notified all our customers of what we had done. One bookstore —just one, mind you — increased its order for this book. The trade sale didn’t earn for the author anything like what the Guild would have guaranteed her had there been no bookstore sale at all, and in the end we felt so conscience-stricken that we paid her a substantial sum out of our own pockets.

Year after year Willa Cather refused to allow us to offer her books to the Book-of-the-Month Club. She always wanted people to buy her books of their own free will. Harry Scherman has not made the success he has without reason. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, then one of the judges of the club, was a girlhood friend of Miss Cather’s; they had been undergraduates together at the University of Nebraska. So Harry had Mrs. Fisher write a long persuasive letter to Miss Cather, who brought it around to me and asked, “What shall I do?” Miss Gather, though a very strong-minded person, didn’t feel, when a direct personal appeal had been made to her in this way by an old friend, that she wanted unnecessarily to offend the club’s judges. I came up with what I thought was a bright idea: we would wire each of our salesmen requesting him to ask the most important customer on whom he was calling that day whether we should allow the book — it was Shadows on the Rock — to be distributed by the Book-of-the-Month Club. With the single exception of a small department store, the smallest of the accounts from whom we heard, the response was that the Book-of-the-Month Club would help the sale of the book and we should by all means let the club have it. So there we were; the Bookof-the-Month Club sent out Shadows on the Rock to its members, and it outsold all of Miss Cather’s novels except Death Comes for the Archbishop and perhaps My Antonia, for which, since we did not publish it, I have no figures.

So the great giveaway element was introduced into the book business. And where has it led us? One recent issue of the New York Times Book Review contained fourteen full-page advertisements. Of these, nine advertised either cut prices or free offers. Generally speaking the book clubs offer such bargains that any family not really fussy or choosy about what they read, and most families are not, could be amply supplied with books for not more than half the regular prices. Sometimes the money involved for the author and original publisher is inconsiderable. But sometimes it is very large indeed. And since these fees are divided evenly between the author and the publisher, even the publisher who would be willing to forego his half—if you can imagine such a fellow —would have his author to consider.

Today the Reader’s Digest Book Club is the most profitable one, and I think it is the least discussed by booksellers. Few books earn for either author or publisher in their original edition anything like what this club pays for a selection. John Hersey’s latest novel retails at three dollars; you could have bought it from the Reader’s Digest Book Club at one time for ten cents because he made them print it in its entirety. On our sale of 50,000 copies we paid the author something less than $25,000. His share of the Digest Book Club fee will come to more than $40,000. I could cite many cases just as striking. It all makes me wonder what drives a man or woman into a bookstore to pay the full price for a book.

But I believe that most of what I have been talking about, sad as it seems, is peripheral; the really important thing for all of us is what the author has written. I guess if better books were written, publishers would publish them. But that doesn’t excuse us for producing the large volume of trivial, unimportant, inferior, and downright unworthy stuff we do. The general methods pursued by publishers in acquiring books to publish are often unsound and result in the proliferation of books that are neither good nor salable. These are the bane of the bookseller, and of benefit only to the paper manufacturer and the printer and binder.

We pay substantial advances for books that never get written and for books which turn out to be not at all the kind of thing we expected. You can offer a grade A milk and a grade B if you arc in the dairy business, but authors arc vain in a way that cows are not, and while the publisher may regard a book as grade C, or even F, he is never free to say so publicly. Indeed, he is expected by the people who write books to advertise only masterpieces. So we don’t even remark on a claim such as I found in the PublishersWeekly not long ago: “Never has a book offered so much to a reader.” This is a claim that I think can only be regarded as comic. It reminds me of what Thomas Jefferson once wrote to George Washington: “Such is become the prostitution of language that sincerity has no longer distinct terms in which to express her own truths.”

A single publisher announces for one season “12 superb new novels.” I suppose it would be a good season that produced two or three novels to which the adjective superb could legitimately be applied. You remember what the Irishman said when he was asked if he could play the violin: that he didn’t know because he had never tried. But people who have never written a novel are getting contracts and advances all the time from publishers to write one. Rarely the result comes off in a big way, but frequently it is a sorry performance for which the publisher has to put up the best bluff he can. He usually doesn’t fool anyone, but he hurts the good book for which he can make legitimate claims. No publisher today can say to any author, “Your book is so bad that it can’t be published,” because the author is just as likely as not to go down the street and sell it to the first publisher whose office he passes. Let me give you an instance. The author must remain nameless, but he is an old hand, and we have published him for many years. We don’t however accept everything he offers. Regarding one manuscript which I turned down, I put in our editorial file the following memorandum: “Spoke today to —’s agent. Told him this book a disgrace, that I couldn’t possibly get through it, that I saw no hope for it on our list, or as a later reprint, that he might be able to sell it as an original to one of the less distinguished paperback reprint houses.”

I had forgotten all about this until we recently published a new novel by this author. We submitted an offer from a reprint house to him for his approval. He expressed surprise that the guarantee was not as large as he had been paid for a book whose title I did not recognize. It turned out to be the very book I have just referred to. It had been published under a pseudonym by a first-rate house. They sold few copies in the original edition, but, prosperous as they are, simply couldn’t resist the quick and easy dollar that the twenty-five-cent edition offered.

I WOULD like to speak briefly about reviewers. When I was young, a good many people were around who could really get a hearing for a book: William Lyon Phelps at Yale, at whom the intellectuals used to laugh but whose enthusiasms were really contagious; Henry L. Mencken, who could even sell a book by denouncing it, so arresting was his invective; Hcywood Broun in New York; Henry Sell, Burton Rascoe, and Fanny Butcher in Chicago, and many others. Today book reviewers seem to have fallen on poor times. I think only Orville Prescott writing in the New York Times can convey effectively his enthusiasm for a new book to a considerable number of readers and make them buy the book he praises. We would all benefit enormously were there a dozen like him. Whether they were sound critics wouldn’t matter so much to the book trade — not to start with, at any rate. Naturally the front page of the New York Times Book Review, if it is given over to a very enthusiastic notice of a reasonably good book, docs influence sales, but I have seen favorable reviews printed there of books for which we have not in the following week received orders for thirty copies.

What then makes a book sell? I regret to say that its selection by a major book club still seems to have the greatest influence on the booksellers and hence on the public. Of course it is no longer true that every selection by a major book club has a wide general sale. Nevertheless, the best news we can give our salesmen about a forthcoming book is that it has been tapped by the Book-ofthc-Month Club or the Reader’s Digest Book Club. And this, I think you will agree, is not a very healthy situation.

Nor is the reader guiltless. Wall Whitman, I think, said that to have great poets you must have great audiences. With only a thousand or so copies of a new book distributed among more than that many booksellers, including wholesalers, many a book and not by any means always an unworthy one is hard to find in the stores. It is astonishing how often a good book is missed for years by the very kind of reader who is especially interested in the subject with which it deals.

How to bring the right book and the right reader together is the great problem. The book clubs make much of this very approach. They can do it effectively because the cost of reaching their audience is spread over tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of copies. Neither publisher nor bookseller can afford anything remotely resembling this. Some such duty, it seems to me, devolves on the reader. As the London Times Literary Supplement said not long ago: “In a way, it is more important for the reader to feel some sense of commitment than for the author to set him a lead. For if the reader is content with drivel, or settled too firmly with his head in the clouds, or bedevilled by the irresponsible voracity of the bookworm, he will seriously weaken the writer’s will to give of his best. The writer may display every possible virtue; he may be a model of social and literary tact; he may weigh every word in the most delicate balances apposite to the problems of this world or the next; yet he must depend upon the response of his readers if he is to survive.”

But let me close on a more encouraging note. My own firm is best known perhaps for the quality of its back list — books that very often during the first year appear to be failures have a way of going on steadily year after year and even decade after decade. They are usually good books. Then there are those books which enjoy large sales without the benefit of reviews of any kind, or even of any advertising. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet has recently passed the million mark. It sold 1300 copies in 1923 when we published it, 2500 the next year, 5000 the third year, 10,000 the fourth, and has never sold fewer copies than that in any year since 1928. One year it got past 70,000. The sale astonished everyone except the author, who was convinced from the time he gave me the manuscript that The Prophet would sell hugely. Sometimes authors are that way! Willa Cather had the same belief in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Another, This Is My Beloved, a slim volume of verse, has sold nearly 400,000 copies since it appeared in 1943. And it has practically never been advertised.

When Samuel Butler asked Darwin, “What sells a book?” he got the classic answer, “Being talked about is what sells a book.” And the answer still holds. But for the most part we have prospered without enormous best sellers. And when I think of those that passed the 100,000 mark during their first year or so, Shadows on the Rock, The Fountain, Life with Father, Death Comes for the Archbishop, A Bell for Adano, The Cruel Sea, The Wall, I feel confirmed in the conviction I have held for more than forty years that by and large the taste of the reading public is better than that of us who cater to it.