A Publisher's Random Notes, 1880-1935


[NOTE: Stokes essay, a fine and concise summary of all aspects of publishing during the period he reviews, is here edited to focus on the events and pressures that drove the publication of Lucile and similar books. Omitted text is indicated by ellipsis (…).]

We [members of the book trades] must take a large measure of satisfaction and pleasure in remembering that our life work has to do with the Book, one of the most interesting things man has created.

Of all those arts in which the wise excel,
Nature's chief masterpiece is writing well.

Charles Lamb remarked that "Grace could more appropriately be said before a good book than before a good dinner."

However, the Publisher must face the following, among other costly necessities: -—

He must rent suitable offices in a good location and must provide space for the numerous departments required to run his business and for the storage and shipment of a product that unfortunately makes large demands for room. He must have a well-equipped editorial department, including people competent not only to pass upon several thousand manuscripts annually, but to make suggestions regarding them that often make available works otherwise to be rejected. His editors must also devise works to be written and must select the best people to write them. He must have a manufacturing department with heads trained and skilled in all matters affecting the material form of books. He must have a force of traveling salesmen in order to reach the widely scattered cities and towns of this vast country and of Canada and should have representatives abroad. All these are a source of heavy outlay in both salaries and traveling expenses.

He must have an advertising department with an expert at its head and a force under him to care for its complex, costly and difficult work. He must have a shipping department in charge of men competent not only to store and pack books, but to perform a considerable amount of clerical work as well. He must be provided with legal advisers, owing to intricate questions frequently arising with regard to libel and other matters. He must pay taxes and insurance and, even with the greatest care, experience and judgment, must annually charge off considerable sums because of bad debts and other losses.

The business of publishing is well known to be highly speculative, and, like most speculative activities, unremunerative for the average participant.

Unpublished manuscripts, especially by unknown authors, are faces in shadow. The publisher hopes and believes, in the dim light vouchsafed for them, that each is beautiful, but when he brings them into the glare of the book-buying world, he finds a small percentage of pulchritude, and where one face smiles many frown. In other words many such unpublished manuscripts when metamorphosed into books cause losses. The saving remnants must cover these losses and more, or their publishers will be forced to close perhaps valuable and important outlets for the work of many writers. Experience has proved it humanly impossible for the ablest of publishers to win his publishing wager every time. Such are some of the tribulations of the publisher.

When I bestowed the boon of my services on publishing at nine dollars a week in 1880 no association of publishers existed. The industry was then in "the horse and buggy era." It was also in what I might call the loving-cup era, for the relations between several of the leaders were so friendly that they dined together occasionally and drank from a loving-cup engraved with the names and common good wishes of -— as I remember it -— Harper, Scribner, Holt, Appleton and Putnam.

In those simple days publishers' letters were painfully written by hand in special copying ink and were then inserted between leaves, of tissue paper which, after being wet with a brush and firmly pressed in a sort of vise, retained duplicates of the original letters. Manuscripts were manuscripts indeed, typewriters not being in common use. Telephones were hardly known and when they did come into general use required a vigorous cranking to get results.

The "courtesy of the trade" was then in evidence by which a publisher wishing to prepare an American edition of an English book -— as was then commonly done in the absence of international copyright —- had only to notify his friendly confreres to be free from their competition for the book in question.

The Mauve Decade [i.e., the 1890s] was the heyday of the gift book now conspicuous by its absence from publishers' lists and booksellers' counters. It was often to be found on plush-covered center-tables in friendly companionship with the family album. Today the Christmas displays of books consist of the best literary products of the time in all fields instead of the outmoded, ornate, profusely illustrated volumes once so greatly in vogue.

Few prosperous families lacked copies of Owen Meredith's Lucile and Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh. Estes & Lauriat issued one edition of Moore's poetical favorite which was characteristically bound in parchment-paper with ribbons stamped in gold and was priced at fifteen dollars. A typical title of this sort of holiday merchandise was Fair Words about Fair Women, published by D. Appleton & Co.

An example of large folios, commonly known as "flat books," was Greece and Rome, translated from the German, adorned with many illustrations and catalogued as "gilt edges, elegant, $27.50." Another successful gift book was Dante's Inferno with illustrations by Gustave Dore.

Collections of etchings with text by leading writers on art were in good demand in editions ranging in price from ten dollars to as high as one hundred dollars a copy. Some of these contained examples of the admirable work of such American etchers as Robert Blum, Charles A. Piatt, Joseph Pennell and Stephen Parrish. The high-priced editions were graced by artist-proofs signed by the etchers.

But there were many moderate-priced gift books, in 12mo or 16mo sizes, mostly in ornate bindings. Parchment-paper (imitation vellum) [and] celluloid (imitation ivory) were in evidence as book-covers, and there were white backs with red cloth or gorgeous paper sides. Tree-calf was a favorite and more costly binding much in use.

Several publishers provided an array of 12mo "Red-line Poets," which, with red rules bordering the pages of type, were popular and salable. There were ample supplies also of little books for those of slender purses. Among these was the collection of miniature books entitled "The Chips Series" presenting brief quotations from great authors: Chips from Dickens, Chips from Thackeray, etc. Over a million copies of these white-covered "Chips" were sold at $.50 each.

This flood of gift books poured out freely chiefly because of English non-copyrighted literary work which could be published here without royalty until the last decade of the nineteenth century. Much of the gift-book stock of booksellers was stored away after Christmas not to reappear for a year -— like so many straw hats at the end of summer.

Another feature of the book business of half a century ago was a large out-put of calendars and Christmas cards -— especially calendars. Several publishers including our own house devoted considerable parts of their autumn lists to these. Among these were such important houses as Houghton, Mifflin and Company and E. P. Dutton and Company.

Then a department of book publishing, this activity has now become a separate industry. It may originally have been an outgrowth of the old furor for almanacs now revived by Little, Brown and Company through a new issue of the venerable Farmer's Almanack in an impressive edition of 250,000 copies.

Calendars with pads providing a quotation from an important author for each day of the year were plentiful. As substitutes for Christmas cards there were in the '80s and '90s the so-called "Cut-outs" in the form of children, owls and other subjects. Other holiday messengers of the day displayed covers in gay colors bordered by fringes of silk, then much admired.

Other times, other ways!

But if the demands of their clientele caused publishers to provide books, calendars and cards that sometimes erred against good taste in those bygone days, the same criticism can not be made of the magazines of the time.

In addition to the sterling Atlantic and Harper's Monthly, there were the admirably edited and manufactured Scribner and Century. All were without advertisements and were of high quality generally, but the Century under Richard Watson Gilder and, especially, under its art editor, Alexander Drake, who presented Timothy Cole and other great wood engravers, was of surpassing excellence. Notwithstanding all this, partly on account of their high prices, they were not at all such over-strong competitors of books as are the magazines of today. Possibly fifty thousand dealers exist in America who sell magazines as against fifteen hundred dealing in books or perhaps only five hundred who handle books adequately.

In the '90s came McClure's and Munsey's, with the new mechanical half-tone illustrations, and the way was paved for the numerous very cheap periodicals, possible because of their advertising revenues and low mailing costs. With circulations in the millions these giants provide, for a few cents, stories and articles that fill the reading time of many who might otherwise be book-readers. A questionable new practice on the part of a few of them is presenting as "full-length novels" condensations to approximately fifty thousand words of books which sometimes contain many more thousands in their actual full length.

In January of each year in the early days, there was a gathering of the book clans from all over the country to attend the old Trade Sale held at the auction rooms of Lemuel Bangs on Broadway. Nearly all publishers used these Trade Sales to dispose of inactive electrotype plates and of stock that had become otherwise unsalable, sometimes including books published in the season preceding the sale. The result was that retailers and jobbers of books were able to purchase, sometimes at extremely low prices, supplies that would last them for several months. These were disposed of as "specials" with, naturally, an unfavorable effect on publishing and bookselling of each Spring season. In an effort to improve conditions, the Trade Sale was abandoned in the early '90s, to be superseded by the plan of disposing of so-called remainders —- which, like the unemployed, are always with us -— through The Syndicate Trading Company and other dealers who specialized in selling such overstock.

For a time this new method was fairly well limited to booksellers and department stores, but recently, and especially through the prevailing depression, shops like drugstores, open until late at night and in convenient locations, have given much prominence to these low-priced books. The story goes that a young woman entered a bookshop, stopped suddenly in some confusion and said, "Pardon me, I saw books in the window and thought this was a drugstore." The necessary delay in reducing book production brought about by the depression increased the volume of this business in remainders. Many publishers, however, are attempting to lessen the evil by destroying sheets and even bound copies of books that have become unsalable.

A new movement is under way involving the reprinting of books whose sale at original prices has ceased and putting them on the market at odd prices, of which $1.69 seems to be the favorite. The largest dealer in this new type of reprint and also in actual remainders, the enterprising Max Salop, is in close contact with hundreds of drugstores throughout the United States.

The literary periodicals of the last part of the preceding century no longer exist. Among them were The Bookman, The Book Buyer and the old bimonthly Dial, together with The Critic which was in the hands of Joseph Gilder and that picturesque figure in book circles, Jeanette Gilder. Now important supplements to the great newspapers take their place, such as the Book Review of The New York Times and Books of the Herald Tribune. After joint experience in developing a literary supplement for the New York Evening Post its editors in 1924 left to found the present valuable and successful Saturday Review of Literature.

When the first of these supplements appeared it was enclosed in the Saturday morning edition of the newspaper publishing it. One unexpected result of this was that the sidewalks about the entrances to the subway stations were carpeted with discarded supplements. This indicated such a deplorable lack of interest in literary news on the part of many newspaper readers that the day of publishing the supplement was changed to Sunday, when presumably stay-at-home readers could deposit their unwanted literary pabulum in waste-paper baskets.

The two supplements just mentioned and the Saturday Review are held in the highest esteem by publishers, librarians and booksellers generally, especially as their circulations cover wide territory throughout the country. Many newspapers in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and other important cities have admirably conducted literary departments which form integral parts of the newspapers themselves and are valuable aids in the distribution of books. Certain narrow-minded publishers have been known to express the feeling that through reviews many people are permitted to get a merely superficial knowledge of new books so that they are enabled to talk about them without reading them. Apropos of this Dr. Johnson once said to an insistent author, "Well sir, I'll praise your book but damme if I'll read it."

While the attention given by publishers to books for children was by no means slight in the 1880s, it has been greatly surpassed in recent years. In the early period, Mary Mapes Dodge, author of Hans Brinker, was the distinguished editor of St. Nicholas. Harper's Round Table had a large circulation as did Wide Awake published by D. Lothrop & Company. The books about little Rollo who "clapped his hands in childish glee" and those by Harry Castlemon were in great demand as were the "Elsie Books" by Marthy Finley, twenty-eight in number, which, indeed, live to the present day on the list of Dodd, Mead & Co. Of a higher class were the books by Howard Pyle and Beard's Handy Book; while the House of Routledge published Kate Greenaway's books with attractive illustrations and the Caldecott Picture Books.

Passage in Washington of the first International Copyright Bill in 1891 caused a revolution which changed the face of American publishing. This was brought about only after half a century of effort on the part of the workers in the cause of copyright who have already been mentioned. It is interesting to note that, among other leaders who labored to bring about this change, was Mark Twain. As shown in Mark Twain's Notebook, just published, this great American over fifty years ago did his utmost to induce President Cleveland to realize that it would be a memorable accomplishment of his administration, if such a bill were passed. It was not, however, until Harrison became President, that this was brought about. James Russell Lowell, head of the American Copyright League, was another leader aiding the passage of this bill.

After its passage, the American Copyright League continued constantly to work for improvements in the copyright law. The League has now changed its form, and, strengthened by the backing of The National Association of Book Publishers, has become the Copyright Committee of that organization.

In the absence of international copyright, prior to 1891, American authors suffered with their English confreres because they had to compete with books from England that had no protection and could be published without royalty. This condition made it impossible for American publishers to pay suitable royalties to American authors. The passage of the bill, however, changed this situation radically, to the great benefit of our own writers.

Among its effects was the practical destruction of the series of paper-bound books which flooded the country, such as the Munro Seaside Library and Harper's Franklin Square Library.

The lack of copyright protection worked in two ways, one of which has just been indicated. The other was that a publisher bringing out an American edition of an English book, even though he paid an honorarium or a small royalty to the author — as was frequently done by the best houses — might see at any time competing editions unhampered by such payments. This provided some excuse for such small payments as were made.

It is interesting to note that the Library of Congress is using its air-conditioned room to preserve the "paper backs" of the old piratical days.

A just copyright bill should enable the copyright owners to control not only the sale of the actual books but all their various uses. Readings over the radio, the use of photostats, phonographic readings, and now the new photo-films all present serious problems affecting the rights of publisher and author which call for a proper solution.

In an effort to replace the fat sales of paper books slaughtered by international copyright in 1891 our canny producers tried the experiment of thin, cheaply made paper-covered editions of copyrighted novels which had been widely popular when first issued in cloth. These were manufactured for the American News Company in printings of 100,000 copies, retailed at twenty-five cents and included such titles as Paul Leicester Ford's The Honorable Peter Stirling and James Lane Allen's The Choir Invisible.

Soon two able and enterprising young bookmen, Alexander Grosset and George Dunlap, looking for new worlds to conquer, conceived the brilliant idea of rebinding these books in cloth and increasing their price to fifty cents. This plan they developed into the still better one of renting plates of books — issued as a rule two years previously — from publishers on a royalty basis and manufacturing well-made cloth-bound books, known in the trade as reprints. The enterprise of Grosset and Dunlap and of A. L. Burt & Company resulted in a highly specialized business of huge proportions all based on the discovery that Americans, unlike the French, the Germans and other Europeans, greatly prefer cloth-bound books even at much higher prices than for those in paper covers. Later on this has been confirmed by the failure of experiments made with paper-bound books, although attractively manufactured.

John W. Lovell tried the venture of publishing cloth-bound fiction at twenty-five cents, with the co-operation of certain department stores; but manufacturing costs, even for very large printings, proved too much for him.

Later conditions made it imperative to raise the prices of reprints to seventy-five cents, but their sales continued unabated.

Nearly thirty years later came the reprints of serious books in the "Star Books" and, more recently, the "Blue Ribbon Dollar Books," with further great sales.

The wide distribution of all these reprints naturally has had some adverse effect on the sales of higher-priced new books, and one unfortunate tendency of some retailers has been toward turning their shops into reprint bazaars with meager supplies of the newly published books needed to tempt readers in search of the best thought and talent of the moment.

New books of 1935 are of necessity higher in price than those of fifty years ago, as is true of many other forms of merchandise. Costs of manufacture, due chiefly to a justifiable rise in the cost of labor, are greater, royalties are larger and the costs of distribution including indispensable advertising are greatly increased. All this is not balanced by the mechanical improvements of the machine age.

The list prices of novels in the '80s were about $1.25 and $1.50 in comparison with $2.00 and $2.50 at present. Serious books, in less demand, were not much, if at all, lower than today, although 1935 prices for these are considerably lower than those of 1929. Extremely long novels —- long enough to be made into three-volume sets at 30 shillings as was frequently done in England years ago —- have recently been numerous and successful in a single volume at three dollars.

There is undoubtedly much complaint of book prices, but they are nevertheless low in view of costs of manufacture, overhead and royalty. Anyway the public does not begrudge paying a reasonably high price to hear a great singer. Why should it not pay reasonably for a good book which provides equal and longer-continued pleasure?

A natural result of the depression has been the refusal of the public to continue to buy limited, autographed editions at high prices. The business in these volumes has been somewhat artificial anyway.

Fifty years ago, when reprints were as undreamed of as radio sets, American publishing as a whole was quite unorganized. The evil of price-cutting was then as now working cruel injury to the book-trade and many retailers were forced out of business. The situation became so alarming that in 1900 the American Booksellers' Association and The American Publishers' Association were organized, the latter with Charles Scribner 2nd, as President. A strong effort was made to prevent the use of what are now called “loss leaders" through protecting but not fixing retail prices, competition among publishers as to prices remaining unchanged. This struggle to maintain list prices uniformly throughout the United States was carried on in accordance with justice, with the true needs of the public and with law as interpreted by the ablest counsel available.

In a law suit brought by R. H. Macy & Co., the publishers won decisions through all the courts of the state of New 'York, but lost when carried to the United States Supreme Court under the Sherman Act and paid their opponent $140,000 in damages in 1914. Such united work in maintaining retail prices as that which was thus condemned as conspiracy in this country has been approved and encouraged in European countries more civilized than our own in this respect. It is to be hoped that our Federal lawmakers will some day see this matter in its true light and will discriminate between books and nearly all other merchandise, for books are so easily and so disastrously injured by unfair dealing and are so vital to the education, culture and recreation of our people.

Protection for a limited period after publication was given to new books under the recent Code. The Blue Bird, as General Hugh Johnson called it, was indeed in this, as in Maeterlinck's play, "for happiness"; but this was shortlived and the old misery returned when the N. R.A. was ended by the Supreme Court's decision. An example of the extremes "loss leaders" will reach was found in a personal experience. I asked an assistant to get me a volume of the Modern Library published at 95 cents. When he handed the book to me and I asked its cost, the answer was: "Nine cents. Department store price war."

The decision of the Supreme Court in the Macy case resulted in the death of the American Publishers' Association in 1914. Six years later the new National Association of Book Publishers was formed, with John W. Hiltman as President following a brief period of organization under a temporary President. Necessarily avoiding matters of price protection, the organization has flourished and been of the greatest value because of its activities in promoting the distribution of books, in improving trade practices and in many other ways.

Such problems as these are now being discussed in New York, which has been America's great publishing center for fully half a century. The industry, first conducted in numerous scattered cities, became nationally dominant in Philadelphia then in Boston and finally in New York, with Boston and Philadelphia still very important to the book output of the country. At one time there was a saying current in the trade that if the books on the list of Houghton, Mifflin & Co. of Boston should vanish little American literature would remain; for this great house published Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Whittier, Lowell, Aldrich and other leaders of the time.

In the '90s Chicago became prominent through the success of Stone & Kimball, whose name has now been lost, and Indianapolis made its mark as a center through the Bobbs-Merrill Co. with many great successes.

The homes of New York's great publishing firms were then grouped together in the neighborhood of Astor Place and Broadway, where Appleton, Dodd, Mead & Co. and Scribner worked in friendly competition. Macmillan was near by in Fifth Avenue with Putnam and Dutton as pioneers northward in 23rd Street. Nearly all had flourishing retail departments, half of which have since been separated from them or abandoned. Frank N. Doubleday, then with Scribner, and later associated with S. S. McClure, Walter H. Page and other leaders, successfully conducted before long the daring venture of carrying publishing to Garden City and establishing there a great book-manufacturing plant for the powerful house now known as Doubleday, Doran & Co.

Individuals such as the heads of the houses just mentioned have been responsible for publishing successes more than has been the fact in many other activities; for the business is one that depends greatly on personality. Among the notable examples of this essential of great publishing in the '80s and '90s, some of whom have already been mentioned in connection with copyright or otherwise, were William W. Appleton -— who had earlier brought Alice in Wonderland to us and who was for years a trustee of The New York Public Library —- George P. Brett, of Macmillan's, Thomas Y. Crowell, Frank H. Dodd, George H. Doran, E. P. Dutton and his associate John Macrae, Col. George B. Harvey of Harper's, Henry Holt, J. Bertram Lippincott, James W. Mclntyre of Little, Brown & Co., George H. Mifflin, Charles J. Mills of Longmans, Green & Co., George Haven Putnam, Fleming H. Revell, Frank H. Scott of the Century Company and Charles Scribner 2nd.

Publishing houses that once achieve real importance seem to be blessed with long lives. Those whose chiefs have just been mentioned have generally maintained their high standing in the industry. Although they have kept their original names, however, few of them have any descendants of the founders. There is no Harper in Harper's, no Appleton in Appleton and so on along the line, with a few exceptions such as Crowell, Dodd, Lippincott and Scribner. In these four companies the third generation of the name is active. A few familiar names of fifty years ago, such as Roberts Brothers and Porter & Coates are missed by old-timers.

Practically all the publishers I have mentioned, old and young, have given their chief attention to the cultivation of the field of miscellaneous books. While several of them have departments devoted to textbooks, subscription books or religious books, the vast business in these classes of books is mostly in the hands of houses specializing in one such class solely. My own interest is in general publishing and comments on these other branches of the industry would be more appropriate coming from one thoroughly familiar with them through experience.

The business of importing English books and the publishing relations existing between England and America have always had much interest for the general publisher here. The importance of the business involved is still great, although it is far from being what it was a half century ago. Then Cassell & Company had an active New York branch, as did Thomas Nelson & Son, dealing in a long list of books of English manufacture, and George Routledge & Son had a large and prosperous business here in British classics. Macmillan was then chiefly occupied with importations as a branch of the London house. Most American publishers were large purchasers of editions of English books, chiefly in sheets to be bound in this country.

Later the Cassell and Routledge branches were discontinued and the American interests of Macmillan, developed by George P. Brett, St., became far greater than those involved in their importations from the parent house, which included in the early days the works of many great English authors: Tennyson, Kingsley, Browning, Yonge, Pater and others. The Nelson branch continues, but the importance of the English house is paramount. American firms have experimented with English branches, but several of these have been abandoned recently. Among notable successes in importing during the present century, "Everyman's Library" published by Dent and imported by Dutton has been preeminent, and still lives.

The growing self-reliance of American publishing since the day of the scornful question, "Who reads an American book?" has seen a decline in importations, and English publishers in unprecedented numbers are now visiting us to secure American books. Our retailers today are inclined to purchase imported books sparingly. Some impressive successes, however, such as that of The Story of San Michele, have grown out of the importation of a few sheets followed by the manufacture of great editions here.

While the numbers of publishers have increased greatly since the '80s those of the old-line booksellers have decreased. The coming of the department stores into bookselling, with Wanamaker of Philadelphia as a pioneer, fifty years ago brought about a serious change in the American book trade. Fully one-third of the total volume of American book sales is reached by their book departments some of which are under managers of great ability.

In contrast as regards size, small personal bookshops, such as the Sunwise Turn and Laurence Gomme's Shop, made their appearance about twenty years ago to spread from New York throughout the country and to develop into interesting outlets. Book-loving, educated women now came to the front as proprietors of these shops and as high-salaried heads of important departments. Several of these women are valuable aids to book promotion in conducting book weeks, lectures and authors' readings in their various cities. Nearly simultaneously with the personal bookshops arrived chains of bookstores. Arthur Womrath organized a large group of shops combining the sale of books with their rental. The Tabard Inn of years ago had experimented with a book rental system but this did not last. Womrath acquired a clientele of at least ninety thousand patrons of his rental departments. Doubleday, Doran & Co. have for about twenty years conducted a strong chain of attractive bookshops. The Union News Co. in the East and Harvey in the West have for a long period been successful with their many book-and-news-stands. Brentano's with its active new management is about to re-enter this field. The four companies just mentioned are not active in the rental of books.

This rental system in one form or other has existed for over one hundred years. In the '80s nearly every large city possessed a rental library of good size in a central location. But in recent decades the number of places bearing the name has become astonishing. It is estimated that there are about forty thousand of them in the country, mostly of very small size and specializing in so-called "Westerns," "Mysteries," "Moderns" and similar highly spiced refreshments.

We were told that the Great War created legions of new book readers. If so they must have disappeared into these "libraries," to the regret of booksellers and the possible relief of public librarians. We have frequently been told, also, that American reading is in its infancy -— but the infant does not seem to grow up!

The shrinkage in number of the old-time bookstores, robbing some small towns of them completely, may be due largely to the competition of these rental places; but the loss of the old-time profitable retail business in textbooks, law books, medical books and others for which publishers now deal directly with the consumer probably was more serious.

From the leisurely days of long ago to the speed-loving present, bookmen have always been agog over what, with some approach to banality, have become known as "best sellers." The books contained in the lists of these today may not be wholly above suspicion as to high quality notwithstanding their glitter; but pure gold was certainly found in one product of the '80s which was probably the first phenomenon of its kind. Strangely enough it narrowly escaped extinction in its youth, for it sold so slowly that Harper's hesitated as to letting it go out of print. This was, and is, for it still lives, Ben Hur. It was never strictly a reprint, but Sears, Roebuck ordered a million copies, never wholly disposed of. Other large nuggets of the despised decade were Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn.

In the gay 'nineties came Trilby, Quo Vadis and When Knighthood Was in Flower, with vast sales fostered by new promotional helps by Harper, Little, Brown, and Bobbs-Merrill respectively. It is pleasant to recall at random, as we look along later years, a few of the successes that have cheered their publishers: Richard Carvel, David Harum, Freckles, Eben Holden, The Rosary, The Winning of Barbara Worth, The Call of the Wild, Main Street.

Until fifteen or twenty years ago the novel with few exceptions, was unrivalled as a "best seller." Of the demands made upon the novelist by his readers, Alphonse Daudet has written:

"Entertain me," says one. "Amuse me," voices another. "Arouse me," calls a third. And then comes a motley cry of "shock me," "instruct me," "lift me."

And surely a great success ought to meet one or more of these demands. An early exception to the rule regarding the novel was, in the '80s, Bellamy's Looking Backward; and within more recent years many works of non-fiction have competed with fiction for great sales. But the Bible continues always to be the greatest "best seller" of all, whether as non-fiction or fiction! H. G. Wells, Hendrik van Loon, A. E. Wiggam, Will Durant and Abbe Dimnet with Alexander Woollcott of today typify the authors whose serious books have joined the "best seller" ranks. The greatest star of the present decade in either class is, of course, the sensational Anthony Adverse. But notwithstanding all the talk of "best sellers," there are possibly a few thousand books published here annually, especially during this depression, that cause losses to their publishers and bring pitiful returns to their authors.

One cause of this, in my opinion, is that the regular publication of lists of "best sellers" and the emphasis placed on them in advertising cause too great a concentration of attention on them by booksellers and the reading public. As a corollary, there is corresponding neglect of great numbers of excellent books, many of which are more deserving of success than those in the lists of six, ten or more of these "bests." It causes our public libraries serious difficulty because they find it impossible to supply the demand concentrated on a few titles. This seems to me a situation that menaces the interests of the book world. Our house has of necessity been as culpable as its competitors in this matter.

Publishers are accused of over-production and there may be some justice in the charge, although probably they accept only about two per cent of the thousands of MSS. pouring in upon them. A large publishing output may be of some benefit. From it emerge many dark horses that become makers of records. A present example is Goodbye Mr. Chips, which seemed unduly short for publication in book form.

Were it not for the "best seller" craze, Time's hot sun would soon, as of yore, wither the weeds and help the good plants to blossom and become fruitful. Let us hope for a rich growth of the good plants so greatly needed to nourish a hungry industry. Its present malaise is chiefly due, I believe, to outrageous, unethical price-cutting and to the intense competition of the great rivals of books. Chief among these are moving pictures, magazines, and the radio; but the greatest of these, in my opinion, is the radio, with its time-consuming appeal to all classes of countless potential book readers.

Doubtless there are millions of Americans who have a real want of books but do not know it. Of all the people on the footstool, we should be grateful to the magic of that art which brings forgetfulness of the never-ending chase of our favorite phantoms and gives us recreation or intellectual satisfaction.

Good books, well chosen, fill the various needs of man. They are a solace in sorrow; they enhance joy; they are companions in loneliness; they point the way toward wisdom.


Last revised: 5 July 2011