I’ve always been an inveterate collector of antique and vintage books, on all kinds of themes and subjects: fairy tales (amongst which a treasured 18th century edition of Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s tales, including my favourite, Beauty and the Beast); travel guidebooks (so useful when writing historical fiction); old crime novels; household hints and cookery; bound copies of old magazines, such as Charles Dickens’ Household Words—the edition which I’ve got includes the first, serialised appearance of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. I collect them ‘for fun and profit’, as the old saying has it: because I love old books and magazines, and the undiminished, vibrant life that comes so strongly off their yellowed pages: but also because they are so very useful to me in my work as a novelist. And now I’m collecting in an area very close to my heart–authorship–and it’s proving to be utterly fascinating: for not only do these old books provide an intriguing glimpse into the writing life ‘back in the day’, they also show quite clearly that despite all the many technological changes which have flowed into the everyday lives and methods of authors, in fact many, many things stay the same.
In the past, I’ve come across many passages in old books and magazines that deal with authorship and the publishing industry, such as Anna Dostoevsky’s fascinating description, in her posthumously published 1918 book Reminiscences (about her life with her famous writer husband, Feodor) of how the couple, wearied of low publishing returns, promises of promotion that never happened, and exorbitant discounts demanded by booksellers, decided that they’d do better self-publishing his latest novel, the huge, extraordinary, Demons, also known as The Possessed. Anna gives a blow by blow account of how they went about it, and reports on the huge success of the venture, both financially and exposure-wise (they put together a canny publicity campaign that was the equivalent of a ‘viral’ social media push today, causing a huge buzz about the book before it even hit the streets). So successful was it that lots of other authors, including a certain Tolstoy, rushed to ask them their advice on self-publishing! (Yep, nothing’s new under the sun.)
But passages like those, fascinating as they are, are only isolated pieces in books on bigger subjects. What I was looking for to start my collection of old authorship books were those that concentrated on that subject in its different variants. I’ve only started seriously collecting them very recently, but have already found some real gems.
Such as Andrew Lang’s jokily-serious advice guide to would-be authors, from 1890, How to Fail in Literature, which overturns the ‘Do as I say’ school in an entertaining manner. Here’s an example of a handy tip:
One good plan (for failure)is never to be yourself when you write, to put in nothing of your own temperament, manner, character—or to have none, which does just as well.
A good way of making yourself a dead failure is to go about accusing successful people of plagiarising from books or articles of yours, which did not succeed, and perhaps, were never published at all.
And here’s a wry observation to give a sense of perspective, if you aspire to best-seller status:
..the laurels here are not in our thoughts, nor the enormous opulence(about a fourth of a fortunate barrister’s gains)which falls in the lap of a Dickens or a Trollope.
A Practical Guide for Authors, by William Stone Booth, published in 1907, is altogether a less fun affair. Subtitled ‘In their relations with Publishers and Printers‘, this book is not about the art and craft of writing, but sternly aims at giving authors the nitty-gritty of the business. And I mean the actual nitty-gritty! Here’s how it starts:
Write on one side of the copy…Use white paper, about eight inches wide..Do not use two sizes of paper in the manuscript. ..Number each sheet of a manuscript consecutively…
And so it goes on. Follows is a short chapter on how to offer a manuscript to a publisher, with advice that looks standard even today, such as:
Get a catalogue of his (the publisher’s) publications and satisfy yourself that his list is appropriate to the kind of book you have written.
And observations that sound a little odd to modern ears:
An author will sometimes wish to know the financial standing of a publisher and whether he manages his business on such a conservative basis that he will be able to pay his royalties for the full term of copyright.
(Yeah, sure, but good luck with trying to find that one out!)
Other chapter themes include agreements and contracts (much of which holds true even today), the British market, the American market, advertising, reviewing, proof-reading (including proof-reading signs), intensive chapters on British and American spellings and punctuation. Things which have changed completely (but may of course be in the process of reverting, as is the case with digital books) are attitudes to advances, with Booth wagging a finger at brazen authors who expect such a thing, and the position of the literary agent, with Booth sagely intoning, in a complete reversal of the modern situation that:
No publisher is likely to take quite the same interest in a book brought to him by an agent as in one that is brought to him directly by an author.
Another thing you’d rarely see in an authorship how-to book today is intensive advice on French and German spelling—many English-language books in those days reproduced entire phrases in those languages, untranslated—as readers were often expected to have a working knowledge of them from school.
Then there’s the books on the craft of writing, of which I’ve picked up two good examples from the 1950’s: Writing Made Simple (1956), a kind of early Writing for Dummies, written by Assistant Professor Irving Rosenthal of City College of NY, and Morton Yarmon of the New York Times. This book gives brisk advice not only on how to write all kinds of things—novels, short stories, articles, writing for TV, radio and movies, and ad copy—but also how to market your manuscript, constructing outlines, conducting interviews, finding reader interest (ie: knowing the market), knowing your libel laws, and lots more. Incidentally, the section on literary agents is much more encouraging than in Booth’s book of forty years before, with novelists being advised that a good agent is most likely necessary, while magazine writers may or may not find one necessary. And there’s a warning which holds true even today:
Under no circumstances deal with a literary agent who charges a reading fee.
There’s some interesting titbits re: rates of payment for magazines which are quite startling: eg, at the time The Saturday Evening Post paid $750-$3,000 for an original magazine feature, while The Reader’s Digest averaged $2,500. Dryly, the authors advise that Harper’s Magazine rates start at $250:
Which indicates the range for the quality magazines—long on merit but short in circulation.
It’s a very workmanlike collection, on very workmanlike newsprinty-style paper and was clearly aimed at the aspiring author without much means—for it was only $1.45, as the cover proudly proclaims.
Meanwhile, Be Your Own Editor—How to Make Your Stories Sell, published in New York in 1959, is an altogether more elegant number-a trim hardcover, with eye-catching three-colour jacket. And it’s a treasured addition to my collection, for despite its American publication, it was written by a great Australian writer, D’ Arcy Niland, whose classic novel The Shiralee is one of Australia’s best-loved books, and has been filmed several times. Niland, who was married to another great Australian writer, Ruth Park, until his untimely death in his forties (their twin daughters Kilmeny and Deborah Niland became renowned illustrators), was also a highly successful writer of short stories, with more than 500 published, and his advice in this book is doubly precious because it reflects both his vivid personality and the artistry of his work. It’s full of sharp images, such as
Certainly, you can let your ms go in a slipshod condition. There’s nothing to stop you. There’s nothing to stop you eating spaghetti at Joe’s with your fingers, either.
It’s full of pithy observations, snappily delivered, too, such as:
A plot is basically an idea, but an idea is not a plot.
There are others on character, and theme, dialogue, point of view, and lots more, with practical exercises in all aspects of the writer’s craft, much of which is still relevant today.
Any suggestions from readers for books to add to my collection? And what books on authorship have you found interesting and inspirational–whether old or more modern?