The Lousy Racket: Hemingway, Scribners & the Business of Literature

The Lousy Rack­et: Hem­ing­way, Scribner's and the Busi­ness of Literature
Robert W. Trogdon
The Kent State Uni­ver­si­ty Press
307 pages

While read­ing the first vol­ume of Hemingway's let­ters pub­lished recent­ly (they're up to vol­ume IV now) I came across men­tion of Trogdon's 2007 book. Trog­don is one of the series edi­tors, so it made sense to find this book slipped into the works cit­ed, and I was intrigued to find out that it con­cen­trates on Hemingway's rela­tion­ship with his pub­lish­er and its chief rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Maxwell Perkins, edi­tor extra­or­di­naire. A. Scott Berg dis­cuss­es Perkins' role in curat­ing the career of F. Scott Fitzger­ald and Thomas Wolfe in Max Perkins: Edi­tor of Genius, but spends sur­pris­ing­ly less time on his role with Hem­ing­way. Trog­don rec­ti­fies that omis­sion in this book, a thor­ough dis­cus­sion of issues Hem­ing­way faced with par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to sales and mon­ey con­cerns,  as well as issues of cen­sor­ship and poten­tial law­suits. Trogdon's sym­pa­thy lies with Perkins as edi­tor and pub­lish­er rep, who became both cheer­leader and hard-head­ed busi­ness real­ist as com­pared with Hemingway's often angry blusterer.

The first major issue came up with the book Scribner's took on after Hemingway's break with his first major pub­lish­er, Boni & Liv­eright, The Tor­rents of Spring. In a now famous pub­lish­ing sto­ry, Hem­ing­way used the unflat­ter­ing por­trait of Sher­wood Ander­son he wrote in Tor­rents to break his con­tract with Boni & Liv­eright, know­ing they would not agree to pub­lish some­thing that sat­i­rized their lead­ing light, which then gave him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to move to Scribner's, with whom he would spend the rest of his life.

"The most com­pelling rea­son for Hemingway's dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Boni & Liv­eright was the mar­ket­ing of [his first book] In Our Time. Liv­eright was more inter­est­ed in what Hem­ing­way would do in the future than in his ini­tial Amer­i­can pub­li­ca­tion. Short sto­ry col­lec­tions typ­i­cal­ly sold bad­ly, espe­cial­ly when they were the first books of unknown authors. Liv­eright appears to have treat­ed the book as a lost cause right from the begin­ning, pub­lish­ing it only to secure the tal­ent­ed author for the firm. Liv­eright ordered only 1,335 copies, indi­cat­ing that a large sale was not expect­ed." (19)

Trogdon's strength is in the num­bers crunched. We learn not just that only 1,335 copies were print­ed, Liv­eright spent only $653.10 on adver­tis­ing, and didn't fea­ture the book until page 25 of its fall 1925 cat­a­log. Trogdon's access to and analy­sis of the adver­tis­ing bud­get, ad place­ments and cat­a­log copy give us a much clear­er pic­ture of what real­ly prompt­ed Hemingway's desire to shift pub­lish­ers: money.

Even so, the pub­lish­er switch didn't mean that Scribner's took a wild fly­er on Hem­ing­way and threw buck­ets of mon­ey at him. Trog­don reports only a $500 advance and 2,785 copies print­ed on Hemingway's first Scribner's book, The Tor­rents of Spring, with an ad bud­get of $796.54 in 35 venues. Not the num­bers of some­thing they expect­ed a great deal of move­ment from.  This seemed to cre­ate in Hem­ing­way the bane of all pub­lish­ers, the writer who con­stant­ly bitch­es about money.That would all change–or would it?–with Hemingway's first prop­er nov­el, The Sun Also Ris­es, the rea­son Scribner's want­ed Hem­ing­way to begin with.

Mon­ey and the pur­suit of it remained a theme through­out Hemingway's time, a theme he returned to with increas­ing petu­lance and feroc­i­ty depend­ing on how he felt at the time, giv­en the ads he saw in the trades and gen­er­al inter­est mag­a­zines, and how many copies of his books Scribner's print­ed. He remained con­vinced that the pub­lish­er didn't do enough to push his books of the 1930s, a time dur­ing which his pop­u­lar and crit­i­cal recep­tion fad­ed a bit from the high points of The Sun Also Ris­es and A Farewell to Arms, a down­turn only cured by the 1940 block­buster For Whom the Bell Tolls. Perkins at these times reas­sured Hem­ing­way that the pub­lish­er remained firm­ly in his side, and that they were doing the best that they could, giv­en the demands of the mar­ket and the times.

Oth­er demands came to the fore as well, pri­ma­ry  among them the issues of cen­sor­ship and poten­tial libel. Hem­ing­way insist­ed, in his per­son­al writ­ing cre­do and in his busi­ness inter­ests, that he nev­er used a word with­out know­ing it was the best word for the sit­u­a­tion, and it quick­ly came to pass that his use of four-let­ter words com­mon­ly used would nev­er work in the rel­a­tive­ly staid con­fines of Scrib­n­ers and the pub­lish­ing world in gen­er­al. As well, his habit of lift­ing real-world friends and some­times ene­mies and plac­ing them in his nov­els with bare­ly-changed names and char­ac­ter­is­tics proved to be an issue.

Still, the empha­sis this book places on the mon­ey trail dur­ing Hemingway's career at Scribner's: the ad bud­gets and place­ment, the con­tracts, the remu­ner­a­tive book club deal that put For Whom the Bell Tolls over the top in sales, all tak­en from Scribner's records and doc­u­ments from the Hem­ing­way col­lec­tion, serve to remind us all of Hemingway's true per­spec­tive.  First, the actu­al work mat­tered. Sec­ond, but near­ly equal­ly, the mon­ey mat­tered, regard­less of crit­i­cal or audi­ence opin­ion. If you're inter­est­ed in the often sober­ing busi­ness of literature–all dol­lar amounts are also list­ed in 2005 dollars–and Hem­ing­way, you shouldn't over­look this book.

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