Source File: cat.cs007.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 7

Advertising Cather during the Transition Years (1914-1922)

On 12 January 1921, Willa Cather wrote to Ferris Greenslet, her editor at Houghton Mifflin, to report that "Claude," later to become One of Ours, would be published by Alfred Knopf. Although she had voiced numerous complaints about Houghton Mifflin's handling of My Ántonia, she claimed that her main reason for switching to Knopf was advertising.[1] She had been studying Knopf's advertisements, including his successful publicity for Youth and the Bright Medusa, and concluded that his endorsements were more spirited, sincere, and enthusiastic than Houghton Mifflin's. She refused at first to commit to a permanent break from Houghton Mifflin—she wanted the option of offering them future novels for publication—but she firmly believed Knopf would do the best publicity work for "Claude."

Differences in advertising strategies are evident in issues of the New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and the New Republic from 1914 through 1922. If Cather perused issues of the New Republic, as she likely did, she would have seen differences between Houghton Mifflin's book lists and Alfred Knopf's signed letters.[2] Houghton Mifflin's full-page advertisements often listed and briefly described ten to thirty books, sometimes including excerpts from positive reviews. The company's few exceptions to this strategy included a December 1914 full-page advertisement devoted to Emerson's journals and a July 1921 back-cover quarter-page for an Amy Lowell novel. Houghton Mifflin occasionally promoted poetry collections and Lowell's fiction in the New Republic, but its advertisements focused primarily on nonfiction, such as biographies and histories, to reflect the periodical's attention to domestic and international affairs. Alfred Knopf also placed book lists in the New Republic, but his offered more enthusiasm and substance. Within a short description of a book, either nonfiction or fiction, Knopf included a mixture of subject and plot synopses, excerpts from reviews, and his own recommendations. Adolph Kroch recalls in his essay "To Alfred Knopf from a Bookseller" that Knopf's lists were "not sales talks, but literary dissertations and elucidations of a publishing program that was clear, incisive, uncompromising" (41). Some Knopf advertisements did not look like lists at all, but like personal letters to a friend complete with paragraphs and his signature in script. In these, Knopf marketed himself as a publisher who was more concerned with literary quality than market demand.

Houghton Mifflin anticipated Knopf's letter-style technique in a 3 October 1915, quarter-page advertisement for The Song of the Lark in the New York Times Book Review. Unlike Knopf's, Houghton Mifflin's "letter" does not end with a personal signature in script. It also fails to announce the book's title in large, bold type. To discover what the advertisement promotes, one must read through its first four lines. Readers who scan the page for bold titles and headlines may miss it altogether. The first lines are elegantly formal: "Messrs. Houghton Mifflin Company take pleasure in announcing a new and impotant [sic] novel." This is not a personal, enthusiastic announcement, like when a friend rushes to the table, pushes a book forward, and gushes, "You've got to read this! It is so good!" Instead, the advertisement reads like a black-tie event where guests stand and politely applaud as the book is escorted to the stage for a prepared introduction—an impressive formality quickly forgotten when the book is mistakenly called impotent by the host rather than important. Cather scorned this black-tie event when she expressed dissatisfaction with Houghton Mifflin's formal introductions of her books (Cather to Greenslet, 19 May 1919).

Cather wanted advertisements to exude sincere enthusiasm and excitement (Cather to Scaife, 30 October 1915). Instead, the announcement for The Song of the Lark exudes detachment. It classifies the novel as a "study" and "panorama," terms that sound heavy and academic. Except for the word "glorious" in the first paragraph, the synopsis reads like a vague book report. The second paragraph indicates that Cather handles her theme "in a big way" but does not explain what that means. Does it mean The Song of the Lark is a long novel (which it is), or does it mean something else? The advertisement's last sentence finally shows some enthusiasm: "The Song of the Lark will stand high among the really worth while novels of the year." While this statement promotes Cather's work as important and worthwhile, it is overshadowed by the misspelled word in the first sentence. Houghton Mifflin had a company rule that advertising layouts "were to be studied with the same painstaking attention" given to advance copies of books (Ballou 426). The poor copyediting of this advertisement suggests that it did not receive the proper "painstaking attention" and that The Song of the Lark was not as important to Houghton Mifflin as it wished to indicate.

Earlier, in March 1915, Cather had expressed jealousy over Doubleday's publicity methods, which she said made her feel wistful (Cather to Greenslet, 28 March 1915). She may have seen Doubleday's advertisement for Joseph Conrad in the 13 March 1915 issue of Publishers Weekly. This eye-catching announcement, with its headless statue and fearless predictions, exudes a bold confidence and enthusiasm that are lacking in Houghton Mifflin's announcement for The Song of the Lark. Unlike the tucked-away title in Houghton Mifflin's advertisement, Doubleday prominently displays Conrad's title, Victory, in large, bold letters that are difficult to overlook. The bottom corners advise that Conrad's Chance was voted "the Best Novel of 1914" and that Doubleday predicts "double the sales of Chance" for Victory, a prediction repeated in the second paragraph of the announcement's text. The text praises Victory for the "directness of its narrative" and the "extraordinary power and swiftness of its action," but it also claims that Victory has more "popular elements" than Conrad's previous novels. The first paragraph clears up possible confusion over the title. Victory is not a war novel, as the title suggests, but a "romance of Axel Heyst and Lena, the girl from a travelling Ladies' Orchestra, and their strange life on the deserted South Sea island of Samburan." The novel addresses an individual's isolation from other individuals, not a nation's conflict with other nations.

Besides the bold title, optimistic predictions, and enthusiastic praises for Victory, Doubleday's advertisement does something else that appealed to Cather. It includes a quotation from H. L. Mencken: "a tale indeed!" Cather often prodded Greenslet and R. L. Scaife, Houghton Mifflin's advertising director, to take advantage of positive comments her work received. She suggested review excerpts and rewrote advertising copy to include quotations. On 19 October 1915, more than two weeks after publication of The Song of the Lark, Scaife wrote to Cather, enclosing an advertisement proof to be printed in The Transcript. He remarked that "the reviews which are appearing are stunning, and any further announcement must include the Nation, which I have just seen this morning, and which is the best yet." Cather responded to Scaife on 30 October and said The Transcript advertisement was uninspiring. She considered it damning to promote a book with empty phrases such as "an uncommonly interesting novel" or "unquestionably a novel of distinction." She believed a review's enthusiastic tone was more important and influential than words of commendation. Along with her letter to Scaife, Cather sent a revised advertisement that included review excerpts from the Nation, the New York Commercial Advertiser, the New York Tribune, and the Chicago Tribune. Two days later, she wrote to Greenslet and asked him to let Scaife know about quotable reviews in the Boston Advertiser and New Bedford Standard (Cather to Greenslet, 1 November 1915).

When an advertisement for The Song of the Lark appeared in the 20 November 1915 issue of Publishers Weekly, it included a review quotation. The excerpt, however, ignores all of Cather's suggestions, including her disdain for empty commendations. It praises The Song of the Lark as "a distinct improvement on her previous novels, 'O Pioneers,' [sic] and 'Alexander's Bridge.' It is unquestionably a novel of distinction."[3] This excerpt, which includes a phrase Cather condemned in her letter to Scaife, seems to say that The Song of the Lark is a "novel of distinction" because it is "a distinct improvement," implying that Cather's previous novels were inferior in one or more unnamed ways. This ambiguous advertisement is overshadowed by the "glorious romance" of The Fortunes of Garin, "a brilliant story" in K, and the "brightness, sparkle, vivacity, rollicking humor" of Little Miss Grouch (as praised by the Boston Advertiser). A better, more exciting quotation would have described The Song of the Lark and Cather's previous novels with clear, positive, enthusiastic adjectives rather than obscure praise.

Three years later, a December 1918 article in Publishers Weekly announced the winners of their Book-Ad Contest and explained that every advertisement should impress a book upon the reader's mind. The article stated that the advertising director's job "is not merely to prepare a series of striking announcements, but to see to it that the idea behind the advertising, the point of view of his house in publishing the books, penetrates the minds" of all booksellers and buyers ("Award" 1963). The director must "present the facts attractively; he must place this knowledge before the public in such a way that they are impressed." A suc cessful advertisement "attracts, creates interest, kindles desire, convinces and impels action." That action, of course, is to buy the book being advertised. Although this article was not published until 1918, its ideas can be applied to advertisements from 1915. Does the 20 November 1915 advertisement for The Song of the Lark impress? Does it create interest in the story or kindle a desire to buy the book? Sadly, no.

The Book-Ad Contest asked all booksellers to select their three favorite advertisements and explain why they were the best that appeared in Publishers Weekly from 14 September to 16 November 1918. The judges weighed each nomination against three "fundamental principles" of advertising—phraseology, pictorial construction, and typographical display ("Award" 1963). An honorable mention was awarded to a Houghton Mifflin advertisement nominated by a bookseller who explained that she had never seen a bad advertisement from the company. Houghton Mifflin's advertisements in general were not of poor quality, but the company's low expectations and budget for Cather's novels did not encourage them to do their best when advertising her work.

At least one Houghton Mifflin advertisement for Cather, an advertisement for My Ántonia, managed to impress. It was so well done that it attracted the attention of the man who would later publish One of Ours. Alfred Knopf, in his "Miss Cather" essay, describes "an oddly dignified advertisement" for My Ántonia that he saw in the fall of 1918 (205). Perhaps he saw the 29 September 1918 advertisement in the New York Times Book Review. While this quarter page does not include review quotations, it does show more enthusiasm. The title immediately catches the eye with bold type and is followed by a list of Cather's previous works: The Song of the Lark and O Pioneers! "etc., etc." This list not only invokes the memory of past novels to help sell the new novel but also indicates that Cather has written more than three books. She is a prolific novelist with an established and growing reputation. The paragraph that follows praises Cather's "rare quality of being able to put into her books the flame and driving force of unconquerable youth." While The Song of the Lark was classified as a study or panorama, My Ántonia is "a love story of profound human appeal." In the last few lines, Houghton Mifflin describes the book as "one of the really notable American novels of recent years. We unreservedly recommend it to every lover of good fiction." The very bottom is signed in script: "Houghton Mifflin Company." This advertisement is no longer a black-tie event but rather a fancy dinner party where a guest wishes to gush about the new book, but must do so within the manners of polite society.

Despite the improved enthusiasm in Houghton Mifflin's advertisements, Cather continued to be dissatisfied. In her five-page grievance letter to Greenslet, she expressed admiration for Knopf's advertising of Joseph Hergesheimer's Java Head, noting that Knopf's splendid publicity work had improved Hergesheimer's reputation and career, even if it did little to increase sales (Cather to Greenslet, 19 May 1919). Throughout 1919, Cather peppered her letters with references to Knopf's advertising strategies and requests for Houghton Mifflin to follow Knopf's lead. [4]

Cather might have seen the Java Head advertisement in the 12 January 1919 issue of the New York Times Book Review. Unlike Scaife, Knopf did not wait long to include review excerpts in his advertisements. By 12 January, Java Head had been on store shelves for only one week, yet it was "an instantaneous success." This advertisement includes five enthusiastic reviews. The first says that Java Head is "a strange, most unusual, beautiful, intriguing story," and another calls Hergesheimer "one of the great novelists of the period." This was what Cather wanted in her advertisements—instantaneous and enthusiastic review excerpts.

While Cather appealed for better advertisements, Houghton Mifflin decreased its advertising budget for her novels. The firm distrusted any link between advertising and sales (Mignon 512). In May 1919, Greenslet indicated to Cather that he was unsure if more advertising would help sell her novel. "Possibly more advertising of 'My Ántonia' would have resulted in larger sales," he said, "but for whatever reason, it did not react as it should" (Greenslet to Cather, 23 May 1919). Despite this distrust, the firm awarded higher allocations to books whose authors had proven to be profitable. If a previous book was a best-seller, the company was confident that the author's new book would repay advertising costs in high sales. In 1914, Houghton Mifflin allotted over $6,000 to advertise Henry Harrison's novel V. V.'s Eyes because his first novel, Queed, had done so well (Ballou 558).[5] Eleanor Porter's Just David received an allocation of $4,000. The novel accumulated 100,000 advance orders and became a best-seller in 1916. Next to these generous sums, the allocations for Cather's books were minuscule. The Song of the Lark received an advertising budget of $1,000 (Crane 48), while My Ántonia received only $300 (58). These figures, especially the $300, demonstrate Houghton Mifflin's lack of confidence in the selling power of Cather's novels.

Cather explains her switch from Houghton Mifflin and "the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand" to the "search for something for which there is no market demand" in her 1920 essay "On the Art of Fiction" (8). She explains that, "in the beginning, the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture" (8). As a new novelist, Cather was "wedded" to old literary ideals (particularly noticeable in her Jamesian novel, Alexander's Bridge). She was therefore well matched with the old-form, long-established, market-minded Houghton Mifflin. In her 1922 essay "The Novel Démeublé," however, Cather refuses to write novels "manufactured to entertain great multitudes of people," because "fine quality is a distinct disadvantage in articles made for great numbers of people who do not want quality but quantity" (36). Cather's insistence on literary quality required a publisher who not only valued quality and experimentation but gladly spent money to advertise it.

Accounts vary regarding Cather's first meeting with Alfred Knopf, but he offers similar versions in "Miss Cather" and a paper he presented to the Massachusetts Historical Society. During the presentation, Knopf said: I think it was in 1919 that there happened to me the sort of thing a publisher dreams about but doesn't often experience. A lady named Willa Cather walked unannounced into our small offices on West 42nd Street. . . . She expressed surprise to learn that I knew who she was, and you must remember she had already published My Ántonia, so I didn't think I was very clever. She liked the kind of advertising we were doing (it must have been on a very small scale because we were very small publishers in those days). ("Random" 99) In her 1940 essay honoring Knopf, Cather explains that she was impressed in 1919 (and afterward) by Knopf's sincere enthusiasm for his authors and his willingness to "take any amount of pains with a book" despite a lack of funds ("Portrait" 12). He did not reserve generous advertising budgets for only his profitable authors, as Houghton Mifflin did, but was generous with all of his authors. Knopf's approach inspired Cather to allow him to publish and advertise a collection of her short stories in 1920 as a trial run. The collection was Youth and the Bright Medusa.

There is plenty of enthusiasm and praise in Knopf's 29 September 1920 advertisement for Youth and the Bright Medusa. Although Houghton Mifflin rarely advertised fiction in the New Republic—mostly because of the journal's "somewhat limited field of critical endeavor" (Greenslet to Cather, 23 May 1919)—Knopf chose that periodical to advertise Cather's newest collection. He displayed confidence and faith in her work by listing her collection at the top of a full-page book list in a medium that printed more advertisements for nonfiction than fiction. Above the collection's title is the announcement: "A new Book by the author of 'My Antonia' [sic], etc."[6] This is a bold statement by Knopf, especially since Cather had not yet broken from Houghton Mifflin. By referring to My Ántonia, Knopf draws on the popularity of the Houghton Mifflin book to help increase sales of the Knopf book.

The advertisement's first sentence establishes Cather as an important author who should be noticed: "There are not many living writers from whom a new book commands the attention with which each successive volume of Miss Cather's is now awaited. There seems to be no disputing the fact that she is our foremost living woman novelist." Knopf teases readers by implying that a new book is forthcoming but not saying what it is. One must read on: "In the stories in the present volume she deals with youth's adventures with the many-colored Medusa of art." This sentence does two things. First, it answers the question, "What is the next book about?" Second, it explains the book's unusual title so that confusion over its meaning will not decrease sales. Fanny Butcher, a book reviewer and friend of Cather's, explains in her memoir that "a title has often made the difference between a winner in the literary horse race and the forgotten nag" (363). By explaining the title, Knopf tries to keep the book from being forgotten. The third sentence explains Cather's unique style with strong words: "Each tale is marked by the amazing ardor and restless energy of imagination which is peculiarly Miss Cather's; by a quick, bold cutting into the tissues of human experience and emotion that makes each of them a new discovery about character and life." Cather accused Houghton Mifflin's advertising of being timid, but Knopf's aggressive technique includes forceful imagery of cutting human tissue.

Knopf did not wait for Youth and the Bright Medusa to be reviewed before he included quotations in the advertisement. Instead, he found reviews of Cather's past work and used those, again drawing on the reputation she had established with Houghton Mifflin. He even included a review excerpt from a periodical in Sweden, proving that Cather's work was not only read nationally but internationally as well.

Almost two weeks after the New Republic advertisement for Youth and the Bright Medusa, a different advertisement appeared in the New York Times Book Review. It is a short book list with interesting contrasts to Houghton Mifflin's list from five years earlier. While The Song of the Lark is promoted in the bottom corner of Houghton Mifflin's advertisement—overshadowed by the intriguing, central panel advertising K as "The Novel That Has Swept The Country"—Youth and the Bright Medusa appears at the top of Knopf's. The Houghton Mifflin book list does not refer to any of Cather's previous works, but the Knopf list immediately refers to Cather as "Author of 'My Antonia' [sic]." Houghton Mifflin offers a simple description of The Song of the Lark, "the story of a prima donna's life, from childhood on a Western ranch to international fame—a story of ambition, of triumph and of love," but Knopf offers a review excerpt from the Nation about Youth and the Bright Medusa, "one of the most poetical interpretations of American life that we possess." While The Song of the Lark struggles to compete with the fascinating books surrounding it, Youth and the Bright Medusa leaps off the page with its announcement of "eight distinguished stories!"

With One of Ours, Knopf continued to invest in enthusiastic advertising that took advantage of Cather's reputation. An announcement in the 10 September 1922 issue of the New York Times Book Review takes full advantage of her visibility, something she said Houghton Mifflin did not do. It includes a photograph of Cather, mentions My Ántonia (again without the accented "Á"), and proclaims that "Miss Cather was the only woman in the list of five leading American writers who have emerged in this decade." This statement, coupled with Burton Rascoe's comment that "Miss Cather is the one woman of indubitable genius that we have," elevates Cather as an important American novelist. Knopf goes on to introduce One of Ours as "an authentic masterpiece—a novel to rank with the finest of this or any age." If this is not enough to send readers to bookstores, Knopf continues his push by describing Claude Wheeler as "a sort of American Hamlet" and praising Cather's "daring, impatient mind, her subtle and flexible style." This advertisement is careful to not mention the book's war aspect, but hints of the war are present in references to "the final adventure which releases the baffled energy of his [Claude's] nature" and "the ever deepening sense of national drama, of national character." These references conceal without misleading. Anyone surprised by the last half of One of Ours could return to these and recognize their subtle overtones of war.

While some critics were surprised by the novel's war aspect and wrote negative reviews, it did not adversely affect sales. Cather had hoped to receive 10,000 advance orders for One of Ours (Lewis 115); instead, Knopf's aggressive advertising led to 12,000 advance orders. He printed 15,000 copies at first, but immediately printed another 10,000 to meet demand. In contrast, My Ántonia did not sell well until One of Ours won the Pulitzer Prize and boosted sales of all Cather titles. Houghton Mifflin's first printing of My Ántonia ran 3,500 copies (Crane 58). Cather's longtime companion, Edith Lewis, reports that "the initial sale of My Ántonia was small—in the first year it brought about $1,300, and not quite $400 in the second year" (108).[7] The combined royalties for Youth and the Bright Medusa and One of Ours were approximately $19,000 (115).

One thing about Knopf that appealed to Cather from the beginning was his strong interest in establishing long-term reputations for his authors. Knopf, who began his firm in 1915 at the age of twenty-three, was still establishing his own reputation as a New York publisher in 1919 and 1920. His fortune was linked with the fortunes of every one of his authors. His success depended on theirs, and he referred to his publishing business as a "personal affair" ("Random" 101). Knopf admired his authors, a fact Cather appreciated. Edith Lewis states that Knopf "made evident, not only to her [Cather] but to the world in general, his great admiration and belief in her" (116). This was an important contrast to Cather's claim that Houghton Mifflin showed little faith in her work.

In response to Cather's grievance letter in 1919, Ferris Greenslet voiced his belief that, if Cather were to switch publishers, she "would, in the end, fare worse" (Greenslet to Cather, 23 May 1919). Instead, she fared better. In 1940, Cather wrote the following: "I have always been proud that I asked young Mr. Knopf to take me over, with not so much as a hint from him that he would like to have me. It was a rather sudden decision. Did it work? The answer is, twenty years" ("Portrait" 26). Her decision to switch publishers—her move away from publicity devoted to formality and market demand in favor of publicity devoted to enthusiasm and literary quality—finally helped establish Cather as a prominent author and American icon.

NOTES

I am grateful to Susan J. Rosowski for reading and commenting on various stages of this article.
 1. Charles Mignon, in his textual commentary for My Ántonia, suggests that Houghton Mifflin's timid publicity for Cather's novels "may very well have had an effect on her move to Alfred A. Knopf" (512). Here I argue that advertising played a prominent role in her decision to switch publishers. Differences in the advertisements of Houghton Mifflin and Alfred Knopf are also discussed in Susan J. Rosowski's historical essay in the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition of A Lost Lady. That essay offers insight into what Cather saw as major differences between advertising strategies; Cather's transition to Knopf so that "Claude" would receive better advertising; and the effect of Cather's Pulitzer Prize on book sales. A two-page spread in the Scholarly Edition includes a copy of Knopf's advance pamphlet advertising One of Ours. (Go back.)
 2. The information in this paragraph was gathered by studying several issues of the New Republic from 1914 through 1922. The descriptions of advertising techniques are summaries of the many advertisements studied. (Go back.)
 3. The absence of the exclamation mark from O Pioneers! again suggests that Houghton Mifflin's advertisements for Cather did not receive proper attention or care before they were printed. (Go back.)
 4. See Cather to Greenslet, Saturday [May 1919], 7 October [1919], and 17 November 1919. (Go back.)
 5. Greenslet often referred to the success of Queed in his letters to Cather. On 30 March 1915 he wrote about "the historic case of 'Queed' which went in the front door of the Doubleday shop and left by the back and led the six best sellers for nearly a year under our imprint." On 1 November 1915, while discussing strategies for advertising The Song of the Lark in women's colleges, Greenslet commented: "Something like this was used very successfully in launching 'Queed' while Harrison was still unknown." Houghton Mifflin was proud of its success with Harrison's first novel, and that pride carried over into the advertising of his next. (Go back.)
 6. The majority of advertisements studied for this article, regardless of whether they were from Houghton Mifflin or Alfred Knopf, do not include the accented "Á" in Ántonia's name. A notable exception is a Houghton Mifflin advertisement in the 28 September 1918 issue of Publishers Weekly. Subsequent Publishers Weekly advertisements printed "Ántonia" without the accent. (Go back.)
 7. These sales figures were compared with Houghton Mifflin's production records and confirmed during research for the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition of My Ántonia. See James Woodress's historical essay in that edition. (Go back.)

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