Brain Pickings

Publishing and Its Discontents, 1948 Edition

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“Keeping up with present-day costs is as tough for a publisher as for an author, and there does not seem to be an end towards the increase.”

There is little doubt that the economics of publishing and the arts are being dramatically disrupted today as we grapple with the challenges of post-industrial creativity — from individual crusades like Amanda Palmer’s brave quest for creative crowdfunding to the many models with which publishers are experimenting as alternatives to ad-supported media. Yet, like most problems that appear unique to our time, these issues are anything but: Take, for instance, book publishing and its discontents.

In 1942, dealing with many of the challenges authors face today and unable to find a publisher for her short story collection Under a Glass Bell (public library), Anaïs Nin started a small publishing house called Gremor Press, taught herself the art of letterpress and type-set the book by hand, printing a limited-edition of 300 copies with gorgeous engravings by her husband, which she sold via an innovative subscription model. But while the book became a prized collector’s item, exhibited in galleries and museums, it wasn’t bound for the kind of commercial success that would allow Nin to make a living, so she continued to look for a mainstream publisher. Eventually, Gore Vidal, whom Nin had befriended and enchanted, convinced his publisher, Dutton, to give Nin a chance.

In early 1948, writing in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947 — 1955 (public library) — the tome that gave us her meditations on embracing the unfamiliar, escaping from city life, and the role of character and personal responsibility — Nin records the following exchange with the president of Dutton, which mirrors many of the backward economics of contemporary publishing:

I asked Dutton for an advance on Under a Glass Bell.

* * *

My dear Anaïs:

Nick tells me that like the rest of us you are in need of some extra pennies. One of these days when we are really scratching the bottom of the barrel I think I will write to five hundred of our authors and suggest that they send us $100 each. That will come to $50,000 and help no end. Keeping up with present-day costs is as tough for a publisher as for an author, and there does not seem to be an end towards the increase.

At any rate, I enclose a check for $250 which is the amount of the initial advance due on November 1 1947 on Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories.

I hope that you are well and happy. With kind regards,

Sincerely,
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
Elliott [Macrae]
President

Under a Glass Bell went on to become Nin’s first entry into the upper echelons of the literary world and is still regarded by many as her finest work, on par with her prolific diaries.

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