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#0461: Willa Cather to Ferris Greenslet, May 19 [1919]

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FG Dear Mr. Greenslet1;

I have waited to answer your letter4 because there are several things I want to take up seriously with you, and yet I do not exactly want to risk a talk with you, because you can frequently persuade me against my better own judgement. –

While you were away MacMillan's sent for me to see whether I would let them have and a Western story to go in a series of American novels they are bringing out. I said, unwisely, that I was not free to do so. During the last few years I have met several propositions from other publishers in the same way. I hate the bother of changes, and business transactions are never a pleasure to me. I have avoided talking to publishers because it made me restless and discontented, and because my relations with you, personally have always been so pleasant, even in business. But this bill for proof corrections has brought things to a head with me. I do not think it a just charge. I kept duplicate proofs, with the corrections, until after your first statement came in; then, as there was no charge entered, I threw them away. I do not think it is the custom of publishers to make these charges in the case of painstaking writers in whom the publisher, so to speak, "believes". I have just seen some of Mr. Drieser's5 proofs; his books are practically re-written in proof, and he is never charged a cent for corrections. Do not Houghton Mifflin make this charge as a sort of luxury tax on a carefully written book? I don't mean I doubt that there is some a charge from the printer, but it seems that a publisher usually pays this charge for a book he wants and is glad to handle.


MacMillans, whose books are well printed, tell me that the cost of composition on a long novel at the present time, is about $600.00, and that author's proof corrections cost about a dollar an hour. If my book cost $500.00 for composition, then by the 20% quoted in the contract, you would give me a hundred dollars' worth of proof corrections without charge, would you not? Add to that the amount you take out of my royalties, for and we have author's corrections amounting to $244.00. Is it possible that it took one man thirty working days to make my corrections? You may tell me that the Riverside6 compositors charge more per hour, but why, after all, should your authors be charged more than MacMillans'?

Within the last few weeks, three New York2 publishers have made me definite propositions for my next book, offering better terms than my present publishers make me; and in addition to increase in royalties and $100.00 $1000.00 to $1500.00 cash advance on delivery of copy, they offer to give the book and me much better advertising than I have hitherto had. One firm7 has outlined an advertising scheme which seems to me excellent. They believe that the aim of avertising is not so much to sell one particular book, or to be careful to come out even on one book, as to give the author a certain standing which would insure his future and interest in his future books. Houghton Mifflin's policy of may work out well for them as a business policy, but I do not think it works out well for me. I think that the recognition of the public and reviewers has outstripped that of my publishers. This has been borne in upon me by a hundred little and big things until it has become a conviction. The publishers have made no use of this growing appreciation, and take no account of any evidence of it except the evidence of sales, which, with work like mine, is not indicative of the real interest.


I want to say a word about reviews. I know it is your theory that reviews do not sell a book. But some publishers do make them sell books. Several men have told me here that they believed that the review8 of "Java Head"9 in the New Republic10 sold11 several thousand copies of the book. I know a number of people who bought the book after reading that review,- I did so, at once,- and they are all [illegible] people who help to make opinion. I believe the New Republic never received copy of my last book12, and Mr. Hackett13 protests, not to me but to people to whom he would speak more frankly than to me, that his attention was never called to it by the publishers as being an unusual book. You remember that after writing you twice14, asking you to send a copy to the editor of the Globe15, I had to take a copy to Mr. Dawson's16 house myself.

One of the cleverest reviewers in New York telephoned me not long ago to discuss Mencken's17 review18, and remarked that nobody had been afraid to come out and say that this book was unique in American fiction19, except the publishers! That is certainly [illegible]true; glance, if you will, at that the jacket on that book; if ever there was a timid, perfunctory endorsement! "We unhesitatingly recommend etc"20! No use has been made of the very unusual reviews the book has had. One of the best21 ones was lost in a special publication, The Dial22; but couldn't the publishers of the book have got that notice to the part of the public who would be interested? MacMillans thought so, and the same notice23 was a roast of their bo book. That excellent appreciation24 of Brunius25, instead of being quoted26 in some page advertisement devoted to the best foreign and American notices of my books, was printed27 in The Piper28 (!) with the sentences which said the books had the qualities 4 strongest sentences of commendation and such expressions as "a new and great writer" carefully omitted. Now I don't want Houghton Mifflin to call me a "great writer", but why are they so shy about quoting anything of that sort when other people say it? If it were from a delicate literary conscience, I would admire the firm for it, but they do not feel this timidity in advertising frankly meretricious work.

I think "Java Head" has been splendidly advertised, with real enthusiasm and fire. You may tell me that it has not done a great deal for the sale of this particular book, but I know it has done a great deal for Hergesheimer29.

This brings me to the real point of my dissatisfaction about advertising. My present publishers print my books and give them a formal introduction to the public. At least one30 of the publishers with whom I have been talking here believes in my books, and he wants my kind of work enough to spend money in pushing it, to lose money for the first year or two in pushing it. You know that has to be done to place an author of any marked originality. You know that Condar even Conrad31 was a man absolutely recognized but almost unsold until Doubleday, urged by Kipling32, took some real interest and pride in selling his books.

I know that you like to publish my books, but I am not assured that the other members33 of your firm do. If they do not, they will never do more than print them (the books) and let them take care of themselves. You know the real temper of your colleagues. This is not a business letter, but an appeal to you for personal advice, which will be absolutely confidential.

Do Houghton Mifflin want to publish me enough to put some money 5 into them my books, and to give my next novel34 as many inches in of advertising as have been given to "Java Head", for instance. That book is still being advertised, by the way, while Antonia was long ago do dropped out of Houghton Mifflin's ads.

Is not the Houghton Mifflin mind and heart entirely fixed upon a different sort of novel?

Frankly, I despair of any future with them. I see35 they have now on hand eight copies of "The Song of the Lark"36 and four of "O Pioneers"37. That seems to me indicative of the cautious spirit in which they have always handled my work. They don't believe they can make much on me, but they will be very careful not to lose much.

Books like mine require a special kind of publicity work. The New York publisher with whom I have talked most will give them that, and he will let me cooperate with his publicity department. I must give him his answer very soon.

I don't like to have my books come out in two groups, from two publishers; and I suppose if I go to antoother publisher Houghton Mifflin won't keep even four copies of any of my books on hand! But as it is, they never take advantage of the fact that every review of Antonia was a review of my three novels and discussed them all as things forming a group by themselves. The three books are never advertised together as a presentation of special features of American life, as Knopf38 advertises all of Hergesheimer's books, even those that are out of print. I don't care about the cash advance and that sort of thing, but I know I can work better for a firm that can give me some of its ingenuity and enthusiasm.

Faithfully yours Willa Cather