Friday, August 10th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: “We cannot feel sufficient confidence in our ability to make a success of your book”

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Photograph of Walter Hines Page. MS Am 1090.4Walter Hines Page is probably best known for his work as ambassador to England just before and during World War I, where he was instrumental in encouraging his long-time friend Woodrow Wilson to join the war effort. But before Page was a diplomat, he was a journalist and publisher, serving as editor of the Forum, the Atlantic, and the World’s Work, literary advisor to Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., and founder, with Frank Doubleday, of Doubleday, Page, and Co. Page’s papers are a veritable who’s who of famous literary and political correspondents, and they paint a remarkably thorough picture of the state of publishing at the turn of the century.

As I worked my way through Page’s letters, I couldn’t resist blogging and tweeting the unexpected and entertaining one-liners and letter excerpts that, though they didn’t have all that much bearing on my immediate research, were just too good to leave alone. My personal favorite may be the letter from Frank Norris to Page, Norris’s publisher, explaining why Norris’s landlord had written to Page in search of Norris’s rent:

My Dear Mr. Page:

The old beast that wrote you I had forgotten to pay my rent will I hope die a sudden and violent death and fry on a particularly hot grid.

The last I heard from him was that he was hoping to sublet my old apartment so that I would not have to pay September’s rent. Very naturally I waited to hear from him again. And then he knifes me.

Well I sent him his damn money today and may it perish with him.

Frank Norris, Letter to Walter Hines Page. Ms Am 1090 (792)

But perhaps the most illuminating aspect of Page’s letters, at least for anyone given to bemoaning the decline of the printed word, is what they reveal about the how much—and how little—publishing has changed in the last 120 years. For one thing, a would-be author submitting work to Page could expect a response, no matter how undesirable and unsolicited the manuscript. In 1896, Page sent the following letter to Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd:

Dear Madam:

We wonder if you know that you have presented the hardest possible task that could be given to a publisher – to bring out a volume of sonnets, a volume of love-sonnets, and, to crown all, a volume of love-sonnets that must be published anonymously.

We have been at some pains to look up precedents, such as there are, and we regret to say that we have not found encouragement. The truth is poetry, especially subjective poetry, of all forms of literature depends most for recognition and appreciation on a known or knowable personality.

In taking counsel of our conservatism we beg that you will not think us inappreciative of the sonnets, and especially do we wish you to feel sure of our thanks for your thought of us.

Shall we send the manuscript to you by express?

Walter Hines Page, Letter to Mabel Loomis Todd, 1896. MS Am 1090 (28.161)

I don’t think that many poets today attempt to publish anonymous volumes of love sonnets, but it seems unlikely that those who try are met with such a pleasant response. I’m particularly fond of the reasonableness with which Page explains that it’s not that he doesn’t like the poems, it’s just that readers only buy poetry written by people whose names they recognize.

Even when Page is snarky, and he is occasionally, he’s good natured about it, as evidenced by this 1896 letter to Mrs. Eudora B. Canthorne:

Dear Madam:

You are kind enough to say that if your novel, “Castle Finn,” be accepted, you will send a legible copy of your manuscript for the printers. May we suggest that a legible manuscript is quite as important for a reader as for a printer? The copy that you have sent is too dim to be read by anybody without definite injury to the eyes and a great loss of time.

We shall be glad to consider the novel if you will submit a legible copy, and we await your instructions what to do with the copy that we have.

Walter Hines Page, Letter to Eudora B. Canthorne, 1896. MS Am 1090 (28.19)

But Page wasn’t any more polite than his colleagues—this letter from Houghton, Mifflin and Co. to Lieut. J. M. Simms is similarly respectful of the author’s feelings:

Dear Sir:-

We are sorry to say in reply to your letter of the 2nd addressed to the Riverside Press that we cannot feel sufficient confidence in our ability to make a success of your book to warrant us in asking you to take the trouble to submit it to us.

We thank you, however, for bringing the matter to our attention, and we are

Yours very truly,
Houghton, Mifflin & Co.

I’m especially impressed with the tactfulness with which the letter essentially says, “Not only do we not want to publish your book, we don’t even want to read it.”

Some things, though, never change, particularly the need to balance the aims of journalism with the demands of advertising. In 1912, shortly before he left publishing for foreign service, Page wrote to Hamilton Holt, editor of the Independent,

Your Independent and my World’s Work are as free and independent as journals can be under commercial conditions. But we’ve got to make ‘em pay – got to have many advertisements, got to drum and drum and drum subscriptions at low prices in order to keep the advertisements. Again we simply can’t get certain kinds of information to the public because we are engaged in what many men regard as a commercial occupation.

Page was always looking for ways to spend more time getting information to the public and less time drumming up money, but he could never quite get around the demands of the market. But in a time of frequent recessions, panics, and economic uncertainty (sound familiar?), Page managed to keep the World’s Work running strong, if not always making a profit, all the while sending off the most unfailingly polite rejection letters around.

[Thanks to Sydney Bufkin, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and recipient of this year's Houghton Mifflin Fellowship in Publishing History, for contributing this post.]

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

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