Literary Marketplace

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Numerous and interrelated factors of acquisition, production, distribution, and consumption radically transformed the American literary marketplace between the close of the Civil War and the end of the First World War. A half century of demographic, social, cultural, technological, and commercial changes at once accompanied, propelled, and shaped an exploding "print ecology" in the United States. Important studies by Christopher P. Wilson, Daniel H. Borus, and Susan Coultrap-McQuin emphasize how these changes made obsolete the personal, paternalistic, leisured, and belletristic world of the "Gentleman Publisher" and of the "coterie marketplace" in antebellum and mid-century America. In its place emerged a much more robust, competitive, impersonal, professional, profit-driven, and in many ways, recognizably modern marketplace for what E. J. Phelps, in a December 1889 Scribner's Magazine article, disparaged as "The Age of Words." While Phelps may have looked askance at authors "more prolific than the Australian rabbit" and frontier newspapers following hard on the heels of the ubiquitous whiskey saloon, the novelist Frank Norris more charitably attributed the "sudden and stupendous demand for reading matter" to an "awakening" across classes and cultures of readers (p. 85).


Literacy, like money, satisfied differing needs in an increasingly urban and culturally diverse nation whose population grew from 31 million in 1860 to 110 million in 1920. But no needs were more prevalent than the desires for popular entertainment, moral instruction, and cultural edification to be had from literature, whether lightsome or high-minded, ephemeral or durable. The late nineteenth century accordingly experienced an outpouring of literature in general and of fiction in particular to meet the demands of diverse and dispersed readers. Statistics provided in John Tebbel's The History of Book Publishing in the United States attest to the dramatic increase in new books and pamphlets published during these years: 2,076 in 1880; 4,559 in 1890; 6,356 in 1900; and 13,470 in 1910. "New" did not necessarily mean American books, however, because publishers and readers retained a sizable appetite for the staples of fiction, regardless of origin, long after copyright protection effectively ended the availability of cheap but pirated foreign titles.

Frank Luther Mott's The History of American Magazines documents a similar proliferation in newspapers (4,000 in 1865; 19,000 in 1899) and magazines (700 in 1865; 3,300 in 1885; 5,500 in 1900). This growth helps explain Mark Twain's satire in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), in which one of Hank Morgan's first official acts in Camelot is to found the Weekly Hosannah and Literary Volcano. Not all of the magazines and periodicals counted by Mott survived beyond infancy. The numbers nonetheless hint at the prevailing reality between the Civil War and World War I: the established publishing houses and magazines were being challenged by the competitive publishing of ever-cheaper literature for mass audiences. Also, this competition was taking place in a national marketplace rather than in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic regions that had previously been the prime markets for publishers.

Harbingers of the emerging mass market were the story papers, weekly tabloids of stories and serialized novels that had circulated in America since the 1830s. In the 1870s and 1880s, however, their numbers and their readership surpassed all of the literary magazines. For as little as five or six cents a week at the newsstands or for $1.50 to $2 a year by subscription, a reader could purchase Robert Bonner's New York Ledger (1855–1898), Street & Smith's New York Weekly (1858–1910), Norman Munro's New York Family Story Paper (1873–1921), his brother George Munro's Fireside Companion (1867–1903), or any number of similar papers. Alongside the occasional poem and back-page sermon, customers received eight to twelve densely printed pages of typically sensational, melodramatic, patriotic, sentimental, and occasionally risqué fiction. This material was frequently pirated from English periodicals, occasionally reprinted from earlier issues, and as competition demanded, commissioned from popular writers under exclusive contracts. The sentimental novelist Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth (1819–1899)—better known as Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth—for example, was a stalwart of the New York Ledger. Even after they were supplanted by the Sunday supplements and the literary inserts of the new daily newspapers, the story papers remained a convenient archive of material (metropolitan stories, western and military and maritime stories, science fiction stories, detective stories) for the second great wave of paperback publishing in America.

A flood of cheap paperbacks also began in the 1870s and continued into the early 1890s, until cutthroat competition, overproduction, the adoption of an international copyright law in 1891, and the financial panic of 1893 significantly stemmed the tide. In the intervening two decades paperback houses churned out disposable books with amazing rapidity, in some instances a new title daily. These uniformly priced (a quarter or less, when new clothbound books were selling for $1.50), crudely printed, and frequently pirated books were marketed in countless libraries or series of related titles targeted at specific audiences. They included George Munro's "Seaside Library," Norman Munro's "Riverside Library," Harper's more high-toned "Franklin Square Library," even a "No Name Series" of anonymous novels from Roberts Brothers. Because profit was a direct function of volume, the paperback houses inundated the market with literal and figurative bales of inexpensive reprints, frequently of popular foreign books, at the expense of new and indigenous American titles.


In the following excerpt from his essay "Fiction-Writing as a Business," Frank Norris describes what he calls the typical "life history" of a "properly managed" literary property.

First it is serialized either in the Sunday press or, less probably, in a weekly or monthly. Then it is made up into book form and sent over the course a second time. The original publisher sells sheets to a Toronto or Montreal house and a Canadian edition reaps a like harvest. It is not at all unlikely that a special cheap cloth edition may be bought and launched by some large retailer either of New York or Chicago. Then comes the paper edition—with small royalties, it is true, but based upon the enormous number of copies, for the usual paper edition is an affair of tens of thousands. Next the novel crosses the Atlantic and a small sale in England helps to swell the net returns, which again are added to—possibly—by the "colonial edition" which the English firm issues. Last of all comes the Tauchnitz edition, and with this (bar the improbable issuing of later special editions) the exploitation ceases. Eight separate times the same commodity has been sold, no one of the sales militating against the success of the other seven, the author getting his fair slice every time.

Norris, "Fiction-Writing as a Business," in Complete Works 7:125–126.

When publishers did not resort to pirating or reprinting, corps of staff and contract writers, more efficient than proficient, earned between $150 and $300 per original dime novel or between $75 and $150 per half-dime novel (introduced for the less affluent boys' market). The most famous of the dime novels were the pocket-size "yellow backs" of thirty-five thousand to forty thousand words from the New York firm of Beadle and Company, later Beadle & Adams (1851–1898). These paperback biographies and novels were affordable, and affordably disposable, throughout the ranks of the working classes. In an entry in Publishers for Mass Entertainment in Nineteenth Century America, Lawrence Murphy estimates that between 1860, when Dime Novel No. 1 appeared (Ann S. Stephen's Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter), and 1898 Beadle & Adams distributed three titles every two weeks for almost forty-seven years. The firm's principal competitor, Street & Smith, eventually surpassed Beadle as the largest publisher of dime novels in more than fifty different but always sensational dime and nickel series, including the urban uplift stories of Horatio Alger Jr. (1832–1899).


For the more serious literature of the age, though, the preeminent venue was the periodical. The novelist and editor William Dean Howells (1837–1920) observed in his 1893 essay "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business" that the prosperity and prominence of the new magazines had given "a whole class existence which, as a class, was wholly unknown among us before the war." The contemporary writer understood "perfectly well," Howells wrote, that "his reward is in the serial and not in the book" (p. 432).

Howells might have noted as well that the growing dominance of the periodical press over the book trade tended to conflate literature and literary journalism in a manner that led a remarkable number of (mostly male) writers to serve apprenticeships and even to establish careers as journalists and "magazinists." The offices of the magazines and newspapers could be "cemeteries of talent" in Larzer Ziff's memorable phrase from The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation (p. 150), but they were also the training grounds for not only Howells but also a host of other respected literary figures. These included Mark Twain (a pseudonym for Samuel Langhorne Clemens), Bret Harte, George Washington Cable, Harold Frederic, Edward Bellamy, Ida M. Tarbell, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Hamlin Garland, Richard Harding Davis, George Ade, Lincoln Steffens, Finley Peter Dunne, Ray Stannard Baker, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, and Jack London. Yet the rewards of the periodical press were not without costs. Writers already accustomed to trimming their work to the presumed moral sensibilities of the reading public had to accommodate themselves as well to the practices and policies of the mass-market periodical.

Often known as "ten-cent magazines," the mass-market periodicals typically had a circulation of a quarter million or more. They dominated the periodical trade by the mid-1890s, but they had been preceded by what were sometimes referred to as the "quality" magazines. In Reading for Realism: The History of a U.S. Literary Institution, 1850–1910, Nancy Glazener termed these quality periodicals the "Atlantic group" of magazines, and they were a veritable marketplace unto themselves through the 1880s. Such magazines were frequently owned by and used for promotional purposes by publishing houses, were run by editors who thought of themselves as men of letters, were directed primarily to a genteel and conservative audience of northeastern subscribers, and were instrumental in fostering and shaping American literary realism by embracing in their fiction (if not in their readership) representations of the common man and woman. In addition to the Atlantic itself (1857–), these periodicals included the Galaxy (1866–1879); the Critic (1881–1906); the Forum (1886–1930); Harper's New Monthly (1850–1899), later to become Harper's Monthly Magazine (1900–1913) and Harper's Magazine (1913–); Lippincott's (1868–1916); the Nation (1865–); the venerable North American Review (1815–1939); the irregularly issued Putnam's (1853–1857, 1868–1870); Scribner's Monthly (1870–1881), which was to become Century Magazine (1881–1930); and Scribner's Magazine (1887–1939).

These literary magazines were eclipsed by their more fashionable, more popular, and more profitable mass-market competitors: the Saturday Evening Post (1821–), rejuvenated under the editorship of George Horace Lorimer after 1899 and boasting a million subscribers by 1900; Ladies' Home Journal (1883–), also a million-selling weekly by 1903; Cosmopolitan (1886–); Collier's Weekly (1888–1957); Frank A. Munsey's ten-cent weekly Munsey's Magazine (1889–1929); Samuel Sidney McClure's ten-cent monthly McClure's Magazine (1893–1929); and the weekly Everybody's Magazine (1899–1929). As a group, these magazines published popular if occasionally homogenous fiction alongside topical and "timely" articles, human-interest stories, and copious photoengravings and eventually photographs. They differed from their genteel predecessors in several important respects: rather than appendages to publishing houses, they were self-sustaining and profit-driven publications with active editorial policies and aggressive marketing strategies; they secured mass readership through below-cost prices (ten to fifteen cents per issue and as little as a dollar a year for subscriptions) made possible by heavy advertising revenue; and they were sold on newsstands as much as through subscriptions. In an 1899 column, the editor Frank A. Munsey (1854–1925) offered his literary formula for the successful magazine: "Good easy reading for the people—no frills, no fine finishes, no hair splitting niceties, but action, action, always action" (Labor et al., p. xiv). Hamlin Garland (1860–1940) took a more jaded view of the "magazining" he witnessed while at McClure's: "Editing became more and more a process of purveying, and writing more and more of an appeal to shopgirls, tired business men, and others who demanded easy and exciting reading" (p. 342).

Both Christopher P. Wilson and Susan Coultrap-McQuin have emphasized the increasingly impersonal nature of the periodical market between the Civil War and World War I. The magazines relied upon advertisers for revenue, their publishers relied upon professional editors for policy, editors frequently relied upon staff writers for contributions, and everyone relied upon the marketplace rather than aesthetic standards for cues to taste. The generation of editors who came of age after the Civil War—most notably, John Brisben Walker (1847–1931) of Cosmopolitan, Samuel Sidney (S. S.) McClure (1857–1949) of McClure's Magazine, Edward W. Bok (1863–1930) of the Ladies' Home Journal, and George Horace Lorimer (1867–1937) of the Saturday Evening Post—adopted and adapted the managerial models of modern commerce while pursuing editorial policies—"magazining" (Wilson, p. 51) as McClure termed it—that emphasized the "preplanned" and "anticipatory production" of articles. Practices alien to the "quality" magazines (competing for a writer's work, commissioning articles and stories, maintaining house writers) became the norm, making the new magazines, according to Wilson, "less the province of the nonaffiliated, voluntary contributor—not laissez-faire gatherers of an independent literature but active agents in a managed market" (p. 53). One such "nonaffiliated, voluntary contributor," the popular New England writer Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Ward) (1844–1911), no doubt spoke for many of her fellow writers in her 1910 complaint to Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine: "Sometime (if I live) I am going to make an onslaught on the whole modern magazine system of fitting an author to mechanics, instead of the mechanical spaces to the author. It was not so 'befo' the war'" (Coultrap-McQuin, p. 188).


Meeting—and creating—the needs of diverse and dispersed readers required new efficiencies in the book, magazine, and newspaper trades that went beyond the merely mechanical, technological, or logistical. Granted, the continuing expansion of the railroads helped to alleviate the chronic problem of book distribution, as did the emergence of large wholesalers such as Sinclair Tousey's American News Company, which kept street-corner and train-station newsstands nationwide stocked with millions of books, magazines, and newspapers. Magazine publishers benefited as well from a revision of the postal system that took place in 1879, which introduced rural free delivery and lowered rates for any printed material remotely resembling a periodical. Meanwhile, new technologies lessened the dependence of printers on time-, labor-, and cost-intensive manual skills. The Hoe and Tucker web press of 1871 was capable of enormous print runs of newspapers and periodicals. The Kraft thermochemical pulping process of 1879 produced wood-fiber paper in abundance for ever-cheaper books and magazines. Similarly, the Mergenthaler Linotype machine of 1886 finally mechanized typesetting, and the late 1880s brought the advent of less-expensive halftone rather than hand-engraved illustrations. At the same time, as Richard Ohmann argues in an essay in Politics of Letters, the unparalleled wealth accumulated under late-nineteenth-century industrial and finance capitalism strengthened publishing houses and periodicals, which had previously been undercapitalized and often folded after a short time in operation. Nor can one dismiss the social and cultural factors that swelled the increasingly diversified and stratified (but still predominantly female) ranks of readers: accelerating urbanization, compulsory education laws, improved access to higher education, heightened literacy rates, marginally increased leisure time, and the construction of public libraries (twenty-five hundred in 1876 and five thousand or more by 1900). Yet many of these developments, whether in transportation or in education, differ more in degree than in kind from analogous causes cited for the first great expansion of American literature in the 1830s and 1840s. More definitive of the later marketplace, though, were those developments that gave the air of efficient professionalism to the production, dissemination, and management of literary properties.

The new marketplace, whether for books or periodicals, clearly favored the steadily industrious writer. Christopher P. Wilson argues that the romanticized antebellum emphasis on authorial inspiration divorced writing from the idea of work, but the emergent standard in postbellum America was a bourgeois ideal of productivity and its associated values of timeliness, reliability, discipline, responsibility, and expertise (p. 9). In 1886 the Atlantic Monthly, then edited by Horace Elisha Scudder, singled out Henry James (1843–1916), F. Marion Crawford, and William Dean Howells as "the most distinctly professional novelists in America." The magazine measured these "knights of labor" by a "year in and year out" ("James, Crawford, and Howells," p. 850) productivity that was yet to be fully reckoned: 40 novels from Crawford in a 27-year career; more than 20 volumes in the 1890s alone by Howells, a "remorselessly efficient literary machine" according to his biographer, Kenneth Lynn (p. 4); and counting only his fiction, more than 20 novels and 112 stories from James. A generation later Scudder could just as easily have cited the short-lived Jack London's record of more than fifty books—novels, short stories, essays, reportage—in a career of less than twenty years. Edith Wharton (1862–1937) won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence (1920) only after she had already published nineteen volumes of novels, novellas, and poetry in the preceding two decades. Even O. Henry (a pseudonym for William Sydney Porter, 1862–1910), who started late, published nine volumes of stories between 1902 and his death and left material for an additional four posthumous volumes. And then there were the legendary dime novelists Prentiss Ingraham (1843–1904), who purportedly authored more than six hundred works for Beadle, and Gilbert Patten (1866–1945), who, writing as "Burt L. Standish," contributed hundreds of episodes for Street & Smith's "Frank Merriwell" series.

In 1891 Henry James observed that "periodical literature is a huge open mouth which has to be fed—a vessel of immense capacity which has to be filled" ("Science," p. 398). But entrepreneurs such as Ansel Nash Kellogg (1832?–1886), Irving Bacheller (1859–1950), and S. S. McClure had already recognized that even the most productive authors were unable to meet the ravenous demands of readers and editors. Their contribution in the 1880s was to form literary syndicates to distribute stories and serialized novels for simultaneous publication in newspapers and newspaper inserts. Bacheller has little to say in his memoirs about the mechanics of syndication other than to emphasize what was of no small concern to writers, "the doubling of rates all along the first rank of authorship" (p. 45). But the syndicates were responsive to shifts in popular taste, helped writers to reach wider and more dispersed audiences, and generated broad interest in a work prior to its book publication. Such was the case with Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War, which the Bacheller-Johnson Newspaper Syndicate placed in a half-dozen American newspapers in 1894 before it was published by Appleton and Company in 1895. In his study of the syndicates, Fiction and the American Literary Marketplace: The Role of Newspaper Syndicates, 1860–1900, Charles Johanningsmeier emphasizes the prevalence of the practice on both sides of the Atlantic and lauds the syndicates as "the most potent catalysts for the many positive changes that came in the literary marketplace in the 1890s for both authors and readers" (p. 33).

If periodical syndication was an efficient means of reaching a widely dispersed readership, subscription publishing was an equally effective means of reaching more directly the comparatively small book-buying segment of the larger reading public. A number of subscription publishers successfully managed to bypass the bookstore, relying instead on commissioned agents to solicit individual orders for a book prior to its publication. Publishing houses already experienced with mail-order and discount sales to dry-goods and department stores such as Wanamaker's and Macy's needed little incentive to circumvent the traditional retailers. Granted, most editors and publishers tended to disparage the practice as undignified, while less-scrupulous agents exploited the system to fleece the purchaser, occasionally by outright fraud but more often by pushing on uninformed buyers oversized, overpriced, but lavishly illustrated works of dubious merit. Still, the use of subscription agents to canvass potential customers in rural areas and isolated communities that lacked bookstores was a marketing strategy well-suited to minimizing the risks of dealing in expensive reference works, deluxe editions of standard works and Bibles, sets sold on installment plans, and works of regional interest only, such as county histories. It worked as well for Mark Twain, who marketed his most popular works—The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrims' Progress (1869), Roughing It (1872), The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) (1885)—through the subscription agents of, first, Elisha Bliss Jr.'s American Publishing Company and then, from 1884 until its collapse in 1894, his own New York firm Charles L. Webster and Company. Success was apparently not limited to Twain or to specialty publishers. James D. Hart estimates that "outside of school books and periodicals, more than three-fourths of all the money expended in the United States for books each year passed through the hands of agents" during the 1890s and the early years of the twentieth century (Madison, pp. 119–120).


Perhaps the defining feature of the marketplace was that it favored those writers and publishers who most successfully converted into income the multiple rights inherent in works of literature with audience appeal. These included periodical syndication, cloth and paperback editions, and international publications. These multiple outlets helped writers to recognize that their interests were not vested solely in one periodical or publishing house and that their success was not necessarily insured by personal relationships. This further moved the act of publication in the direction of business transactions founded upon contractual negotiations.

The changing relationship between those antebellum stereotypes, the grateful and deferential writer and the magnanimous if not condescending publisher, is conveyed in a series of admittedly selective vignettes. An article titled "Letter to a Young Contributor" in Atlantic Monthly in April 1862, likely penned by the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who served as mentor to Emily Dickinson, reassured potential contributors of the essentially collaborative and congenial nature of the mid-century marketplace. The article described a mutually amicable world of letters wherein authors, editors, and publishers worked toward the common good on little more than a handshake because "the real interests of editor and writer are absolutely the same, and any antagonism is merely traditional" (p. 401). Only eight years later, however, Mary Abigail Dodge (1833–1896), the Washington essayist and journalist who used the pseudonym Gail Hamilton, signaled that the times were changing with her self-published A Battle of the Books (1870), a fictionalized version of her acrimonious dispute with the genteel Boston publisher James T. Fields over alleged underpayments. This contentiousness between writer and publisher became figuratively violent in Jack London's 1909 novel Martin Eden, wherein the self-educated, working-class Eden's struggle to have his work accepted by faceless editors is analogous to the brutal fights of his youth with his "eternal enemy" Cheese-Face. "They ain't no hand-shakin' in this," Eden warns his nemesis before their final bone-crushing clash on Oakland's Eighth Street Bridge (p. 678). Amid the avuncular Higginson, the litigious Hamilton, and the pugnacious London one can barely hear the understated Henry James, who remarked to Howells in 1880 that "there are natural limits to one's sympathy with one's publishers" (James and Howells, p. 141).


For many writers, there were natural limits to their willingness, much less their ability, to manage successfully the increasingly complex business of drawing a living from words. The emergence of literary agents in the last two decades of the century was another instance of entrepreneurship in the cause of efficiency, but it was also an explicit sign that the business of writing and the business of publishing were no longer synonymous. Bret Harte (1836–1902) stated the point explicitly in his May 1885 testimonial to Alexander P. Watt (1834–1914), his English agent: "Until authors know a little more about business, and are less likely to feel that it interferes with that perfect freedom essential to literary composition, it seems better that they should employ a business man to represent them with those other business men, the publishers" (p. 323).

Watt and his colleagues—William Morris Colles, James Brand Pinker, and Albert Curtis Brown—anticipated their American counterparts by representing English authors as early as 1875, according to James Hepburn in The Author's Empty Purse and the Rise of the Literary Agent. The first fully professional literary agent in America was the Bostonian Paul Revere Reynolds (1864–1944), who, after first working in New York as a publisher's agent, was representing authors by the mid-1890s. Soon he was earning his standard 10 percent commission for shopping books, stories, and articles to publishers; negotiating contracts; bargaining for advances and royalty rates; arranging for English publication and translations; marketing ancillary rights, especially as film adaptations became more and more common; and a myriad of additional tasks on behalf of a clientele that included, among others, Stephen Crane, Hamlin Garland, Booth Tarkington, Willa Cather, and Ellen Glasgow.

Publishers, of course, tended to disparage agents as intrusive at best and parasitic at worst. Some, Charles Scribner and Henry Holt among them, initially shunned any writer represented by an agent. The irrepressibility of the agent, though, is clear from two editions of Authors and Publishers: A Manual of Suggestions for Beginners in Literature, by George Haven Putnam (1844–1930) and John Bishop Putnam (1847–1915), principals in G. P. Putnam's Sons. The first edition, in 1883, was a relatively slim volume of ninety-six pages devoted to refuting the "popular assumption that between authors and publishers little sympathy existed" (Putnam and Putnam, 1st ed., p. 1). By 1897, however, the seventh edition of the popular manual had swelled to 275 pages and included a lengthy and dismissive chapter enumerating why the practices of the literary agent—mere brokers, the Putnams called them—were rarely in the interest of an intelligent and wise writer's long, successful, and stable career with a single publishing house.

Bret Harte's defense of agents seemingly owed much to the decline of his own literary fortunes, for he emphasized the peace of mind that an agent could bring to an otherwise uncertain career. The agent "takes away half the pains of authorship," especially that of the uncertainty of placing one's work, Harte wrote. "I generally know before I trust pen to paper that my work will be disposed of and the amount it will bring" (p. 341). A more holistic assessment of the role of the agent in the marketplace is that of James West in American Authors and the Literary Marketplace since 1900:

The agent encouraged in the serious author a healthy attitude toward the business of writing, an acceptance of the idea that literary work could be artistically challenging and, at the same time, financially remunerative. The agent became a means by which commercial considerations and popular taste exerted influence on the author's work, a way in which the tension between art and commerce was communicated to the author. (P. 95)


While the rise of agents was inextricably tied to the commodification of literature, the process of commodification was itself propelled most forcefully by American passage of an international copyright bill in 1891. American writers had enjoyed domestic copyright protection since 1790, but no legislation safeguarded their financial interests in foreign markets or sheltered them and their publishers from the ruinous competition of domestic reprinters issuing foreign works in pirated editions that undercut the sales of copyrighted works. In William Dean Howells's The World of Chance (1893), his protagonist, a midwestern journalist who aspires to a literary career in New York, hears the same lament from publishers as he peddles his manuscript: the "demoralization of the book trade" caused primarily by the absence in America of an international copyright law. "If we can only get this international copyright measure through," one publisher claims, "and dam up the disorganizing tide of cheap publications at its source, we may hope to restore the tone of the trade" (p. 46).

Efforts on behalf of a copyright bill antedated the Civil War, were resurrected in the late-1860s and in the 1870s, and gained momentum in the 1880s with the founding of associations such as the American Copyright League (1884) and the American Publishers' Copyright League (1887), with the strong support of New York and northeastern publishers such as George Haven Putnam, Charles Scribner, Henry Holt, Henry Houghton, and William Henry Appleton. Putnam's "Pleas for Copyright," in the April 1889 North American Review, argued the case nobly. He appealed for adherence to international morality, encouragement of American literature, fair play for foreign authors, the provision of better and cheaper books to consumers, and the betterment of the lives of the "many American authors who have attained an honourable position in literature, and who are, nevertheless, unable to secure from the sale of their books the annual equivalent of a book-keeper's salary" (p. 464). However, attempts to legislate copyright protection involved protracted debate between publishers, pirates, authors, free-trade advocates, protectionists, and powerful sectional (that is, rural) interests. Only with passage of the Platt-Simonds Act, effective on 1 July 1891, did American authors receive a twenty-eight year international copyright on their works, a privilege shared by foreign authors who arranged for simultaneous publication and American manufacture of their works.

The Platt-Simonds Act brought with it many things: the protection of the personal incomes of authors, a justification for higher advances and royalties, a basis for new confidence by publishers in their investments, a boost to the competitiveness of American books in their native market, a justification to publishers to bid competitively for titles, and an impetus to the kind of advertising and marketing that would help to usher in the phenomenon of the best-seller. But copyright protection was also something of an act of submission to the realities of the new marketplace. The gradual commodification of literature was all but completed with the legal recognition of property rights in the imaginative and intellectual product of a writer's labor.


Frequently cited figures suggest that while a successful novel of the 1890s sold 5,000 copies and a new novel by a well-known author might sell 10,000 copies, a "boomed" novel had astonishing immediate sales and cumulative sales typically surpassing 600,000 or 700,000 copies and oftentimes reaching into the millions. These best-sellers were written in a variety of styles, including historical romance (Charles Major's When Knighthood Was in Flower in 1898 and George Barr McCutcheon's Graustark: The Story of a Love behind a Throne in 1901), the "down-home" novels of rural New England life (Edward Noyes Westcott's David Harum in 1898), historical fiction (Winston Churchill's Richard Carvel in 1899), the western (Owen Wister's The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains in 1902), exotic adventure (Jack London's The Call of the Wild in 1903), and the muckraking exposé (Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in 1906). The appendices of Frank Luther Mott's Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best-Sellers in the United States and Charles A. Madison's Book Publishing in America are invaluable for their identification of many of the best-selling books between 1870 and 1920.

Sentimental domestic novels from female authors (whom Nathaniel Hawthorne derided as the "d—d mob of scribbling women") had found sizable American audiences in the mid-century. The Wide, Wide World (1850) by Susan Bogart Warner, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Lamplighter (1854) by Maria Susanna Cummins, Ruth Hall (1855) by Fanny Fern (the pen-name of Sara Payson Willis Parton), and The Hidden Hand (1859) by Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth are ready examples. Likewise, religious and utopian titles such as Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) by Lew Wallace, In His Steps (1896) by the Reverend Charles M. Sheldon, and Looking Backward, 2000–1877 (1888) by Edward Bellamy had large and lasting sales. Because the best-seller epitomized so many of the developments in the early modern literary marketplace, though, one can plausibly wonder whether the bestseller, as distinct from the popular work, could have arisen any earlier than the mid-1890s. For the best-seller has always represented a cooperative effort, a synchronous product of the literary and the commercial, of author, agent, publisher, salesman, reader, and the times themselves. As such, the best-seller was necessarily a reflection of the marketplace.

The American best-seller emerged during what John Tebbel has called the "great fiction orgy of the nineties and the new century's first decade" (p. 653), which would continue until the onset of the First World War. Its birth had to await the confluence of a number of events traced here. The growth of a mass readership and the general cheapening of books were obvious requirements, but the best-seller rode other currents as well: the curtailing of ruinously cheap competition in the publishing world, the professionalization of authorship, the emergence of agents to place books advantageously, the developing habit among publishers of competitive bidding, the protection through copyright of a publisher's investment, the refinement of advertising and marketing strategies, and the unflinching commodification of literature as quantifiable books to be sold. Moreover, the same market that bred the best-seller commodified the maker as well as the made. Successful writers themselves became forms of public property, personages—indeed, international celebrities in the case of Mark Twain—once there was market value in a newspaper byline, in a name on a magazine or title page, and in a likeness on a frontispiece.


The literary marketplace of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era never produced the divine "literatus," that democratic authorial ideal sought by Walt Whitman (1819–1892) in 1871 in Democratic Vistas. Yet the years between the wars were more than just "a manufacturing, rather than creative age," as Publishers Weekly lamented in 1893 (Tebbel, p. 26). Changes in the manner in which literature was created, disseminated, and read encouraged writers to think of their works as marketable commodities and therefore to think of their labor as vocations if not careers.

The example of Edith Wharton is emblematic of the potential for both high seriousness and success in the new marketplace. Recalling the 1870s New York of her parents' generation, Wharton observed in A Backward Glance (1934) that "authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labour" (p. 69). But her own career would be a testament to what she called the "Atlantis-fate" of so many features of that old New York. Her achievement, according to Richard Brodhead in Columbia Literary History of the United States, was to transcend the prevailing literary cultures—the long-established domestic culture of women, the growing proletarian and juvenile culture of youthful males, the gentrified northeastern culture represented by the "Atlantic group" magazines, and the consumer culture of an advertising age—and reconcile the seemingly antithetical principles of literature and commerce. As a professional writer in the early decades of the twentieth century, Wharton accomplished what the vagaries of a mass market had so often frustrated, "serious writing made commercially successful on the basis of its quality as serious writing" (Brodhead, p. 478).

See alsoBook Publishing; Literary Criticism; New York; Periodicals


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Steven H. Jobe

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