Literature and Life (Complete)

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Author: William Dean Howells

VII.

Publishers have their little theories, their little superstitions, and their blind faith in the great god Chance which we all worship. These things lead them into temptation and adversity, but they seem to do fairly well as business men, even in their own behalf. They do not make above the usual ninety-five per cent. of failures, and more publishers than authors get rich.

Some theories or superstitions publishers and authors share together. One of these is that it is best to keep your books all in the hands of one publisher if you can, because then he can give them more attention and sell more of them. But my own experience is that when my books were in the hands of three publishers they sold quite as well as when one had them; and a fellow-author whom I approached in question of this venerable belief laughed at it. This bold heretic held that it was best to give each new book to a new publisher, for then the fresh man put all his energies into pushing it; but if you had them all together, the publisher rested in a vain security that one book would sell another, and that the fresh venture would revive the public interest in the stale ones. I never knew this to happen; and I must class it with the superstitions of the trade. It may be so in other and more constant countries, but in our fickle republic each last book has to fight its own way to public favor, much as if it had no sort of literary lineage. Of course this is stating it rather largely, and the truth will be found inside rather than outside of my statement; but there is at least truth enough in it to give the young author pause. While one is preparing to sell his basket of glass, he may as well ask himself whether it is better to part with all to one dealer or not; and if he kicks it over, in spurning the imaginary customer who asks the favor of taking the entire stock, that will be his fault, and not the fault of the customer.

However, the most important question of all with the man of letters as a man of business is what kind of book will sell the best of itself, because, at the end of the ends, a book sells itself or does not sell at all; kissing, after long ages of reasoning and a great deal of culture, still goes by favor, and though innumerable generations of horses have been led to the water, not one horse has yet been made to drink. With the best, or the worst, will in the world, no publisher can force a book into acceptance. Advertising will not avail, and reviewing is notoriously futile. If the book does not strike the popular fancy, or deal with some universal interest, which need by no means be a profound or important one, the drums and the cymbals shall be beaten in vain. The book may be one of the best and wisest books in the world, but if it has not this sort of appeal in it the readers of it, and, worse yet, the purchasers, will remain few, though fit. The secret of this, like most other secrets of a rather ridiculous world, is in the awful keeping of fate, and we can only hope to surprise it by some lucky chance. To plan a surprise of it, to aim a book at the public favor, is the most hopeless of all endeavors, as it is one of the unworthiest; and I can, neither as a man of letters nor as a man of business, counsel the young author to do it. The best that you can do is to write the book that it gives you the most pleasure to write, to put as much heart and soul as you have about you into it, and then hope as hard as you can to reach the heart and soul of the great multitude of your fellow-men. That, and that alone, is good business for a man of letters.

The man of letters must make up his mind that in the United States the fate of a book is in the hands of the women. It is the women with us who have the most leisure, and they read the most books. They are far better educated, for the most part, than our men, and their tastes, if not their minds, are more cultivated. Our men read the newspapers, but our women read the books; the more refined among them read the magazines. If they do not always know what is good, they do know what pleases them, and it is useless to quarrel with their decisions, for there is no appeal from them. To go from them to the men would be going from a higher to a lower court, which would be honestly surprised and bewildered, if the thing were possible. As I say, the author of light literature, and often the author of solid literature, must resign himself to obscurity unless the ladies choose to recognize him. Yet it would be impossible to forecast their favor for this kind or that. Who could prophesy it for another, who guess it for himself? We must strive blindly for it, and hope somehow that our best will also be our prettiest; but we must remember at the same time that it is not the ladies’ man who is the favorite of the ladies.

There are, of course, a few, a very few, of our greatest authors who have striven forward to the first place in our Valhalla without the help of the largest reading-class among us; but I should say that these were chiefly the humorists, for whom women are said nowhere to have any warm liking, and who have generally with us come up through the newspapers, and have never lost the favor of the newspaper readers. They have become literary men, as it were, without the newspaper readers’ knowing it; but those who have approached literature from another direction have won fame in it chiefly by grace of the women, who first read them; and then made their husbands and fathers read them. Perhaps, then, and as a matter of business, it would be well for a serious author, when he finds that he is not pleasing the women, and probably never will please them, to turn humorous author, and aim at the countenance of the men. Except as a humorist he certainly never will get it, for your American, when he is not making money, or trying to do it, is making a joke, or trying to do it.

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Chicago: William Dean Howells, "VII.," Literature and Life (Complete), ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in Literature and Life (Complete) (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed August 11, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=51UDKFBVL2QPN36.

MLA: Howells, William Dean. "VII." Literature and Life (Complete), edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in Literature and Life (Complete), Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 11 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=51UDKFBVL2QPN36.

Harvard: Howells, WD, 'VII.' in Literature and Life (Complete), ed. . cited in 1909, Literature and Life (Complete), Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 11 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=51UDKFBVL2QPN36.