Text: N. P. Willis, “Authors Pay in America” (A) from The Evening Mirror (New York), October 10, 1844, vol. 1, no. 4, p. 2, col. 2


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WE have hot coals smouldering in the ashes of “things put off,” which we poke reluctantly to the surface just now — reluctantly only because we wish to light beacons for an authors’ crusade and we have no leisure to be more than its Peter the Hermit. We solemnly summon Edgar Poe to do the devoir of Coeur de Lion — no man’s weapon half so trenchant! And now let us turn the subject round, small end foremost.

These are days when gentlemen paint their own boots, and we have latterly been our own publisher. We have thereby mastered one or two statistics which, we know not well why, never looked us in the face before, and which we proceed to hold up by the nape of the neck for the encouragement of the less stuffy or less enquiring. Authors who cannot find publishers, and authors who, having found them, have been as much respected by them as pig-iron by the razor-maker, are invited to “lend us their ears” — on interest!

What proportion should an author have of the net profits of a book? This seems a shallow question enough, but there is a deep hold in it. Remember, in the first place, that the author wrote the book — that God gave him the monopoly of the vein from which it is worked — that he has been to the expense and toil of an education, and to other expenses and toils, (as in travel) — that his mind’s lease is far shorter than his lease of life — and that thought-smiths should be better paid than blacksmiths or goldsmiths; (that is to say, if the credit the work does to the country goes for anything in the valuation.) The question of the division of profit is between author and publisher, and the publisher gives his uneducated mental attention to the sale, a brief use of his credit for the printing and binding, and runs a most partial risk as to the result — for he need not purchase the book except in obedience to his own judgement and his reader’s, and the cost is paid of course before there are any “net receipts.” (There is great capital made of this “risk,” but ninety-nine books in a hundred more than clear the expenses!) Now, taking a stereotyped dollar book for an example, the plates, worth four or five hundred, are paid for, with a moderate sale, in the first month. Suppose it to be three months. The use of the publisher’s credit for $500 for ninety days has been his only outlay of consequence, but the author has had his outlay of brain-work, time, genius and years of education. The printing and getting-up, after the plates are paid for, cost about one-fifth of the retail price — twenty cents on a dollar. To charge ten cents more on each copy for the absolute expense of selling and circulating, is more than liberal, and now, how shall the remaining seventy cents — the net profit — be divided between author and publisher!

We should like to have a watchmaker’s answer to that question. How much ought the jeweller to have for buying it from the maker, warranting it “to go” after examining it, for advertising it, and for selling it across a counter? Suppose the watch to sell for a hundred dollars, and seventy dollars to be the net profit above cost of material. What would you say, if the maker got but ten or twenty dollars, and the retailer fifty or sixty? Yet that is the proportion at which author and bookseller are paid for literary production — the seller of the book being paid from twice to five times as much as the author of it!

We leave this to be pondered upon, and in another paper we shall say a word of the pay for the writers in the periodicals.




This article has been erroneously attributed, as a whole or in part, to Poe, but the entire item should clearly be given to Nathaniel P. Willis. It is attributed to Poe, without discussion, by Heartman and Canny (1943), and Arthur Hobson Quinn likewise thought that both of the October articles on “The Pay for Periodical-Writing” were by Poe (Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, 1941, p. 436). The notion that Poe wrote the full article, however, may be easily dismissed. The two introductory paragraphs are stylistically very much like Willis, and very uncharacteristic for Poe. Although Poe is known to have occasionally referred to himself in anonymous articles, he could not claim that “we have latterly been our own publisher.” The idea that the article was a collaborative effort has been suggested by several scholars. Hull mentions this possibility in passing in his discussion of Poe’s contributions to The Mirror, saying only “Willis prefaces an article, the first in a series written by Poe, ‘Author’s Pay in America’ . . .” and quoting the initial paragraph. Mabbott’s notes at the University of Iowa seem to lean towards attribution of the whole article to Willis, with Mabbott commenting about the pun on “lease” in the third paragraph, “Willis, not a Poe pun,” but also saying of the October 12, 1844 article, “Willis may merely write first paragraph of the former article, or he may have done both these, alluding by his summoning of Poe to later articles.” That the article must be from one hand is evident by a careful reading. The introduction states “We have thereby mastered one or two statistics . . . which we proceed to hold up . . .” The third and fourth paragraphs deal exactly with these statistics, specifically the inequity of the distribution of revenue between writer and publisher. The last sentence promises the article of October 19, 1844, which also seems to be entirely by Willis.

Reprinted in The Prose Works of N. P. Willis, Philadelphia: Henry C. Baird, 1852, pp. 723-724.


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