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From Cather Studies Volume 12

Advertising Willa Cather as Product

Throughout Willa Cather’s career, and many decades before, the publishing industry deliberated over how to sell a product that always changed. In 1856 an anonymous article in the American Publishers’ Circular and Literary Gazette asserted that books were doomed to obscurity without advertising, but the question of where, when, and how to advertise was a “puzzling matter to determine” (“Where” 173). This question was addressed by William Webster Ellsworth, former publisher for the Century Company, in his 1919 autobiography. He states, “the manufacturer of soap or candles or breakfast food has a decided advantage in the matter of advertising;—he can think of the future—the publisher has only the present to consider. If a man likes a special kind of soap he will get another cake next month.” Readers, however, do not buy themselves another copy of a book. Instead, Ellsworth says, they turn “to another book, an entirely fresh one, probably born in the brain of another writer and turned out from the factory of another publisher” (167–68). A publisher’s product is not clearly defined like a brand of soap. Is the product a particular title? A theme? An author? The answer is all three, but not always at the same time.

The focus of literary advertisements, whether on author or specific title, often depends on the medium in which they are placed. Advertisements placed in the Publishers’ Weekly for the newest book by a best-selling author often assume the booksellers and publishers who read that periodical know the author’s reputation and selling power well enough to be interested in the new book without needing much description of its content. In periodicals with a large public readership, however, it cannot be assumed that potential readers will be motivated to purchase a new book based solely on the author’s name. Some readers will have favorite authors and mark their calendars for when the newest book will be available, but many will base their purchasing decisions on whether the description of the book interests them. For this reason, advertisements placed in the New York Times Book Review consistently place emphasis on story descriptions.

The shift from story as product to Cather as product is primarily seen in advertisements placed in Publishers’ Weekly for a trade audience of booksellers, publishers, and reviewers. Advertisements for Cather’s novels, from The Song of the Lark to The Professor’s House to Death Comes for the Archbishop and Lucy Gayheart, demonstrate a movement from title as product to author as product and, in doing so, trace the trajectory of Cather’s growing reputation as an American author.

Her career as a novelist on Houghton Mifflin’s list began when Alexander’s Bridge was published in April 1912. The title was included on the first page, sixth out of eight titles, in the firm’s four-page spread in the March 16 issue of Publishers’ Weekly. Since many titles were cramped onto one page, there was only enough room for Cather’s name, the title, and a two-line description: “The story of a great engineer and the two women who play a part in his life. The first novel of a short story writer of popularity and distinction.” As a first-time novelist, Cather did not have reviews from previous books to help woo booksellers into stocking her novel. Houghton Mifflin used her status as a well-known writer and editor at McClure’s to assure booksellers of her talent, but her writing credentials were not sufficient to make her the product of the advertisement. Instead, the product being sold is the story of an engineer.

Three years later, an October 2, 1915, Houghton Mifflin full-page advertisement in Publishers’ Weekly introduced booksellers and publishers to The Song of the Lark, “a great American novel” destined to become “one of the important novels of the year” (1042). The first paragraph introduces Thea Kronborg, “from her childhood in a dusty little Colorado town to the pinnacle of her career as an opera singer worshipped by two continents.” The remaining paragraphs model the “reason-why” approach trending among advertisers in the 1910s. As Roland Marchand explains in Advertising the American Dream, this approach “took as its model the salesman, foot in the door, overcoming buying resistance with an arsenal of factual and emotional arguments” about why one should buy a product (9–10). Houghton Mifflin’s advertisement for The Song of the Lark argues that the book will appeal to an audience because “American girls have lived and are living just such amazing lives.” The story is one “of hardship and success and the influence of love on a singer’s career,” which “will appeal to readers of every taste” (1042). Cather’s reputation is mentioned in two places—at the top with “Author of ‘O Pioneers!’” and at the end of the second paragraph claiming that “no novelist with the magic touch of Miss Cather has had the vision to put the wonder and romance of such a career into a book”—but potential sales still rely on the content and appeal of the story.

For first-time authors with no celebrity status, the product in literary advertisements must be the book. Dorothea Lawrance Mann, in a 1931 Publishers’ Weekly article, dismissed the idea that photos of a new author would attract attention to a book. She says, “the reproduction of an unknown author’s picture is sheer waste. Not until a book has attracted attention can it be hoped that a picture will be of help” (235). New books attract attention because of the story they tell, the characters they portray, and the discussions they initiate. A new best seller, as described by Charles Denhard in 1923, “has caught the popular fancy. The reason is immaterial. People like it—more people like it than like other books. They want it. They are buying it. The newspapers are discussing it. It is fairly on the way to nationwide popularity” (1221).

Willa Cather understood the importance of focusing advertisements on the story and the praise it received. On October 30, 1915, she wrote to R. L. Scaife, Houghton Mifflin’s advertising director, asking him to include more reviews in advertisements for The Song of the Lark. “When some live and interesting things have been said about the book, why not use the remarks that savor of honest enthusiasm instead of the remarks that are made of wood?” she asked.“If, in writing about a book, the reviewer betrays some personal excitement, that makes one want to read the book.”[1] She wanted advertisements to show that her book, the product, was being read and discussed so others would want to buy it and read it and talk about it.

The eventual transition from book as product to Cather as product began with her move to a new publisher.[2] In 1920 Alfred Knopf’s advertisements for Youth and the Bright Medusa conveyed confidence, enthusiasm, and praise for her work. A September 29, 1920, advertisement in the New Republic announces Cather’s story collection,“a new Book by the author of ‘My Antonia’ [sic], etc,” at the top of a full-page book list. Drawing from the popularity of My Ántonia (published in 1918 by Houghton Mifflin), Knopf’s advertisement claims 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.” These words imply celebrity status for Cather, but Knopf’s advertisement also focuses attention on the collection’s exploration of “youth’s adventures with the many-colored Medusa of art.” Cather has become the reason why people should buy the book, but the product is the collection of stories. The product is the “Book,” capitalized in the advertisement to gain prominence as a proper noun instead of a general lowercase book.

By 1922, Willa Cather was considered a “literary star” by many in the publishing industry. A query sent to fifty-six editors, literary critics, and publishers asked, “Whom would you name offhand as the five leading American literary stars that have risen above the horizon in the past ten years?” (“Who” 411). Compiled results ranked Cather fourth behind Joseph Hergesheimer, Eugene O’Neill, and Sherwood Anderson. Sinclair Lewis of Main Street fame was listed eighth. Knopf seized the advantage of Cather’s growing reputation when One of Ours won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. A June 2 advertisement in Publishers’ Weekly celebrates the award and prominently displays a photo of Cather in her teal embroidered jacket. Three paragraphs of crowded text describe the award, declare the book’s status as a “best seller,” and predict that One of Ours “will live.” Under this small type, the bottom third of the advertisement is devoted to three titles “Also by Willa Cather.” Large black type promotes the “brilliant short stories” of Youth and the Bright Medusa, the reprinted April Twilights and Other Poems, and A Lost Lady “In Preparation (Fall, 1923)” (1696). One of Alfred Knopf’s advertising techniques that appealed to Cather was his strong interest in establishing long-term reputations for his authors. In her May 19, 1919, letter to Ferris Greenslet, Cather explains that Knopf believed “the aim of advertising is not so much to sell one particular book,” but to “give the author a certain standing which would insure his future and interest in his future books.”[3] Cather’s Pulitzer Prize was a perfect opportunity for Knopf to bolster interest in her work by praising One of Ours, celebrating Cather’s skill as a novelist, and lifting up her other titles.

Two months later, Knopf’s August 4, 1923, advertisement for A Lost Lady became a blend of story, author, and theme as product. Willa Cather is still prominent in this advertisement with her name at the top, her full publicity photo, mention of her Pulitzer Prize, and praise for “the easy brilliance of the writing, the vivacity with which Miss Cather gives us all the idiosyncracies of that lavish, generous, careless era” (416). The second paragraph attempts to lure readers with its “story of an incorruptible man and the beautiful woman who was his wife, and of the house in which their moving drama took place.” Marian Forrester is mentioned again at the end of the advertisement, “full of feminine mystery and charm. . . . She is one of Miss Cather’s greatest triumphs.” Along with author and story, a new product is introduced in this advertisement—the product of common theme. It describes the novel as a “romance of the old West; not the West of the pioneer this time, but of the railroad aristocracy that grew up when the great trans-continental lines were being built across the plains” (416). This brings to the forefront continuity of theme among Cather’s previous novels and how this new novel relates to that theme.

There are issues with the claims of this advertisement. A Lost Lady is not set in a “careless era.” Maxwell Geismar calls the decade of 1915 to 1925 “The Years of Loss” with its motif of a “final conquest of the American town, and the values of an older rural life, by the New Economic Order of the industrialized cities” (x). In A Lost Lady, the future of Sweet Water changes from promise to failure. Crop failures cause farmers to abandon their land and return to the East or go to Denver. From the novel: “the railroad officials were not stopping of at Sweet Water so often,—were more inclined to hurry past a town where they had sunk money that would never come back” (24). Marian Forrester attempts to adapt to this and other changes in her life, including a bank failure and her husband’s death, but she is conflicted, confused, and flawed. Her outward appearance is poised and charming, but inside there is a brokenness she can’t always hide.

Brokenness spills into Cather’s next novel, The Professor’s House, and the advertisements for it. Two advertisements in August 1925, leading up to the September 4 publication, list reasons why book- sellers and the public will want to purchase and read The Professor’s House. Roland Marchand explains in Advertising the American Dream that advertising trends shifted in the mid-1920s from objective, factual descriptions of the product to a subjective appeal to emotions and purchasing motives of the consumer (12). Knopf’s August 8, 1925, advertisement in Publishers’ Weekly claims The Professor’s House is “a book to rouse your native pride.” It is written by Willa Cather, “the great novelist, the only American woman whose work holds its own among the contemporary masterpieces of world literature” (485). Each purchasing motive is enclosed in a separate text box arranged asymmetrically on the page.

The four motives listed on August 8 are described in further detail in Knopf’s August 15 advertisement (537). Combined, they say The Professor’s House should be read: If you want to know the feel of America—the richness of its earliest civilization, the struggle of its pioneer life, the ideals of its contemporary youth.

If you are interested in the environment which your son and daughter find in college; if you care to see the cross currents of family life; if you appreciate original characters drawn in a striking way.

If you wish to know American life—life in the small railroad town of the South, life on the Western ranch, life among the professional classes.

If you enjoy a good story superbly told.

The original motives in the first advertisement all point to something contemporary: American life, contemporary youth, college life, family life, professional life.[4] The second advertisement tries to relate the new novel to previous themes in Cather’s work, but those themes do not ft the story. “The richness of its earliest civilization” in the second advertisement points to the cliff dwellings on the Mesa—a deceased and forgotten indigenous civilization. “The struggle of its pioneer life” relates better to O Pioneers! or My Ántonia or perhaps A Lost Lady. Is Tom Outland a pioneer? Perhaps he is, but not in the same manner as Alexandra Bergson from O Pioneers! Godfrey St. Peter writes a pioneering study about pioneers in his Spanish Adventures in North America, but this does not support the claim that readers should purchase The Professor’s House if they wish to read about the day-to-day struggle of pioneers.

A possible explanation for Knopf’s fumbling links to theme is found in Cather’s letter to Dorothy Canfeld Fisher, dated February 27, 1924. She writes: Poor Knopf, anyhow! Just when he has got his booksellers where they can sell most any old book I do about the West, I refuse to have anything to do with the West, but have gone charging of on certain stories of embarrassing length—or shortness—that have nothing to do with locality—or geography whatever! My familiar spirit is like an old wild turkey that forsakes a feeding ground as soon as it sees tracks of people— especially if the people are readers, book-buyers. It’s a crafty bird and it wants to go where there aint no readers. (Selected Letters 355–56) Knopf thought he knew what product he was selling, but the product had changed. To compensate, his August 15, 1925, advertisement for The Professor’s House is an eight-paragraph “open letter to booksellers” mitigating Cather’s lack of continuity in theme by listing purchasing motives and reminding booksellers about Cather’s reputation. The booksellers expected to see a novel from Cather about the West.“The struggle of its pioneer life” fits this expectation, even if it does not ft the novel. The majority of this advertisement tells booksellers that they have a special relationship with Willa Cather and her novels. Knopf explains in the copy that booksellers “want to own and to read ‘the new Cather book’ as soon as possible. There exists a sort of kinship between this author and the world of booksellers who are as anxious to establish her as America’s foremost woman author as her publisher and her friends, the critics” (537). This extensive praise of the booksellers’ interest in Cather encourages them to push her new novel—not because of its familiar theme or setting, but because it is written by an author of established reputation.

The fall of 1926 saw the publication of Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy. It was a small book, but it was beautifully designed with black-print-on-yellow illustrations heading each chapter. When a reviewer questioned the designation of My Mortal Enemy as a “novel,” Cather agreed. She wrote to Blanche Knopf on October 24, 1926, asking: “Don’t you think it is perhaps a mistake to advertise that book as a ‘novel,’ Blanche? It’s not really that. Couldn’t the ad writer call it a ‘Story,’ merely? That would arouse less antagonism” (Selected Letters 387–88). My Mortal Enemy was advertised sparingly in Publishers’ Weekly, always sharing a full page with other titles, but one advertisement stands out for its entry into the conversation as to what product is being sold. An October 2, 1926, advertisement that includes My Mortal Enemy says that “prestige and quality” are “the rallying cries of modern advertisers when engaged in keeping before the public a well-known and well-approved product.” Knopf follows this by introducing “a new book of great significance” and reminding booksellers “of the position held by Miss Cather and of the very active interest in her work” (1368). The advertisement calls My Mortal Enemy a “book,” a “story,” and a “product.” The specific book as “product,” however, contradicts the previous reference to the “well-known and well-approved product.” My Mortal Enemy cannot be well known yet, but Willa Cather certainly is.

In the absence of a “well-known and well-approved” title that can be advertised and purchased for generations, literary advertisers often attempt to make the author into a “product” that is repeatedly bought. Dorothea Lawrance Mann, in her 1928 article “Are We Selling Books or Authors,” says that publicity is meant to “build up such an interest in the author that it will hold over from book to book,” but the difficulty is that advertisers build up “an interest in one thing in order to sell another—since an author and his books are not inseparable” (2439). Unlike soap, which is expected to stay the same in size and purpose, an author is always changing. The purchased product, a book by a specific author, differs from the previous book in many aspects such as size, characters, setting, and theme. Because of this constant change, literary advertisers must choose which product they will promote (title, theme, or author) based on what they believe will give a book the best attention.

Fluidity between book as product and author as product is common in advertisements for best-selling authors. For Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, enthusiastic weekly advertisements placed in Publishers’ Weekly by Harcourt, Brace and Company throughout the month of January 1921 promoted the book as product. The five Main Street advertisements can be compiled and paraphrased to say that everyone is purchasing Main Street, reading Main Street, talking about Main Street, and praising Main Street. The constant, weekly reminders helped Main Street reach the publisher’s goal of 100,000 sales in just four months. Weekly advertisements appeared again in 1927 when Harcourt, Brace and Company announced the March publication of Elmer Gantry. Although a January 15, 1927, advertisement in Publishers’ Weekly lists reasons why readers should buy this “great book about a group of people whose lives are spent in the atmosphere of organized religion,” subsequent advertisements say nothing about the story itself (182). Instead, they announce “Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry” (sic) in large, bold type; they display different photos of Lewis, either serious or smiling; they ask booksellers to “watch your stock carefully” due to increased publicity; and they declare Elmer Gantry “the best-selling book in America since publication seven weeks ago.” These advertisements do not sell the story as much as they sell Lewis’s popularity. In 1933, after Lewis changed publishers, advertisements for Work of Art returned to selling title as product. Weekly advertising by Doubleday, Doran features different illustrations of people and scenes from the novel. They describe characters and their place in the story. They show different angles of what it means to be a “work of art.” These advertisements still draw on the popularity of the author, but their main focus is the content of the book.

Sinclair Lewis’s rival for the 1921 Pulitzer Prize also received advertising that fluctuated in focus between book and author. Edith Wharton was prolific in the 1920s, producing fourteen volumes in the span of seven years. She began writing The Age of Innocence, winner of the 1921 Pulitzer, as an escape from the “stored-up emotions” elicited by World War I and as a return to her “childish memories of a long-vanished America” (Backward 369). The Age of Innocence was introduced to the publishing industry on September 4, 1920, with a full-page advertisement in Publishers’ Weekly. In the top right-hand corner is a black-and-white photograph of Wharton in an oval Victorian frame. Below the frame is a dignified announcement from Appleton presenting “Edith Wharton’s new novel,‘The Age of Innocence,’ as the literary treat of the year. ‘The Age of Innocence,’ the first long novel Mrs. Wharton has written in several years, is a story of American high society, with all those remarkable qualities which made ‘The House of Mirth’ supreme in its field” (497). Besides mentioning “American high society,” this advertisement says nothing about the story. Instead, it focuses attention on Edith Wharton, the earlier success (fifteen years earlier) of The House of Mirth, and the “remarkable qualities” of her work. A month later, the advertised product switched from author to story. An October 16 advertisement in Publishers’ Weekly reveals an illustration of Ellen Olenska, Newland Archer’s love interest in The Age of Innocence. Next to the illustration is a headline (“Was She Justified In Seeking a Divorce?”) followed by a plot summary: Why was this American girl forced to leave her brutal Polish husband? Why did Ellen, Countess Olenska return to New York, seeking to forget? Whispers came all too soon that she had been compromised in the artistic continental society from which she had fed. But in the narrow New York Society of the 1870’s she was welcomed back, and the whispers of far-of Europe ignored, until she and Newland Archer are swept together by mutual attraction, and the old, old question is renewed, shall she create a scandal just because she is unhappy? (1171) This advertisement leads readers into the drama of the story while reasserting Appleton’s claim that Wharton is “America’s greatest woman novelist.” Wharton’s reputation is still an important factor, but the story and its characters are the main focus of this announcement and the reason to buy the book.

Strength of character and setting led to a similar fluidity between story as product and author as product for Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. An advertisement placed in Publishers’ Weekly on June 25, 1927, provides a summary of the book’s scene, characters, and story. “The Scene” is described as the “early pioneer days of the American Southwest.” “The Characters” include Kit Carson, Don Manuel Chavez (“whose story is one of the living legends of New Mexico”), and Father Jean Marie Latour (“Soldier of the Cross”), along with “Indians, Mexicans, priests, and others” (2377). This advertisement emphasizes the story’s characters by assigning names— the real names of two historical figures and the fictional name of Latour. Readers were likely familiar with Kit Carson, and some may have known about Chavez’s clash with Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy.“The Story” shows movement from Europe to America, akin to Wharton’s tracing of Ellen Olenska’s life, but this time “Two priests leave their cultured France to become missionaries in the crude new America—a country savage and beautiful,‘where the water holes are poisonous,’ and where man was ‘made cruel by a cruel life’” (2377). The juxtaposition of “cultured France” and “the crude new America” introduces the clash of culture in the book and the priests’ efforts to understand the people in a changing world. The advertisement ends by asking,“What other word is needed, or could be said?” The product of this advertisement is clearly the book, its story, and its characters.

By January 1928, however, advertisements returned to Willa Cather as product, nearly neglecting characters and story. A January 14 advertisement in Publishers’ Weekly compares Death Comes for the Archbishop with One of Ours, A Lost Lady, and The Professor’s House, saying they “vary enormously in length, in subject, and as examples of a great novelist’s technique. Yet each has enjoyed almost identically the same sale” (139). Although One of Ours won the Pulitzer Prize and A Lost Lady received loud praise, Knopf believed Death Comes for the Archbishop would have a longer sales life than her other novels, except for My Ántonia. “What ‘Sterling’ is on silver, that ‘Willa Cather’ is on a title page. Is there any American novelist writing today of whom one could so justly say that?” For novels that came after Death Comes for the Archbishop, the conundrum of product had been solved by Alfred Knopf. Advertisements for new Cather books, placed in Publishers’ Weekly, gave little to no description of the new stories. Knopf’s first advertisement for Shadows on the Rock, in the May 2, 1931, issue of Publishers’ Weekly, does not include a blurb or accompanying picture. The text explains that the first edition “will consist of twenty-five thousand copies. I expect an advance of publication sale considerably in excess of this, but twenty-five thousand seems enough to print of any first edition of an important novel by an author who is collected” (2175). Through this advertisement, Knopf sells Shadows on the Rock based on the strength of Cather’s reputation rather than the strength of the book.

Knopf continued this advertising strategy throughout Cather’s career. An April 27, 1935, advertisement in Publishers’ Weekly says Lucy Gayheart “needs no introduction: I will comment only as to place and time. It is Romantic—Western—Modern—a story of the passionate enthusiasms of youth, which triumph even when they seem to fail” (1651). This vague description, which offers very little about the story, attempts to put a positive spin on a book about broken dreams, missed opportunities, and what Cather called “youthful hero worship” (Selected Letters 510). When Lucy moves to Chicago to study music, she does not have any “passionate enthusiasm” for music or art. The book’s narrator says she is “talented, but too careless and light-hearted to take herself very seriously. She never dreamed of a ‘career’” (5). When she is hired to play for Sebastian Clement, she does not see it as her break into a musical career, but as a way to spend time with the singer who infatuates her. Her “passionate enthusiasm” for Sebastian blinds her to the reality that he is an employer paying his employee for the work she was hired to do. At the end of the novel, when Lucy is remembered at her father’s funeral, she is remembered as unhappy and tragic “like a bird being shot down when it rises in its morning fight toward the sun” (207). There is no triumph here. The point of this advertisement is not to sell the story as product. It is selling Cather as product. Five years later, a September 14, 1940, two-page advertisement in Publishers’ Weekly for Sapphira and the Slave Girl says the book is “a story of Virginia before and just after the Civil War” before reminding book- sellers of the sales history of her previous work and describing the special trade editions (908). These advertisements, and more like them, assumed Cather’s books would sell because of her name and reputation without any real introduction to the story.

In Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States, Frank Luther Mott says,“there is no formula which may be depended upon to produce a best seller” (285). A best-selling book may have strong characters, personal adventure, or controversial elements, but what works for one author may not work for another, and what effectively promotes one book may not push the next.“Even a book by an established author is not wholly predictable, and one by an unknown often represents a speculation only a few degrees removed from crap-shooting” (291). This unpredictability makes it difficult to formulate a common trajectory from title as product to author as product that works consistently for Willa Cather and her contemporaries. For Cather, the trajectory shows continued growth in name recognition, in reputation, and in sales. By the end of her career, decisions by booksellers to buy and sell her work were no longer primarily based on story descriptions or the ever-changing themes and settings of her work. New novels by Willa Cather were now eagerly awaited and requested based on promotion of the author with the sterling name.

NOTES

 1. Letter from the Houghton Mifflin archives. (Go back.)
 2. For a full analysis of advertisements related to Willa Cather’s move from Houghton Mifflin to Alfred Knopf, including advertisements for The Song of the Lark, My Ántonia, Youth and the Bright Medusa, and One of Ours, see Hamilton,“Advertising Cather during the Transition Years (1914–1922).” Willa Cather as Cultural Icon, vol. 7 of Cather Studies. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2007, 13–26. (Go back.)
 3. This letter is from the Houghton Mifflin archives, but it is also available in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (see page 275). Alfred Knopf confirms his desire to build long-term reputations in his 1961 essay “Random Recollections of a Publisher” (101). (Go back.)
 4. This list of motives reformats the first edition dust jacket blurb for The Professor’s House. Although Willa Cather and Edith Lewis often wrote text for dust jackets, David Porter hears “little of Cather’s voice” in the blurb (45). He says he “cannot imagine Cather herself perpetuating the absurdity of casting The Professor’s House as an introduction to college life” (46). Cather’s October 1925 letter to Alfred Knopf says she “did hate the text of the first edition jacket enormously,” indicating she likely did not write it (Selected Letters 373). (Go back.)

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