Thursday, February 11, 2010

Outside of a Dog #1: Mark Twain's 1900 eBook Contract

Outside of a Dog* is a series that will feature publishing wisdom from a variety of classic and contemporary sources.   As a lawyer, I'm fascinated by the economics and entrapments of publishing contracts and cases.

The title is borrowed from Groucho Marx, who famously said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside a dog, it's too dark to read." Like the challenge of reading inside a dog, this collection records the fact that authors and publishers trying to strike a balance between literary merit and financial need, labor in the dark without any economic certainty. New economic yardsticks for measuring authorship, however, are emerging. No longer do you need a large audience, but, as T.S. Eliot believed, "just a significant one." Since human fallibility is fun to read about, and the dead can't sue for defamation, there's an emphasis on the failures and foibles of dead poets, novelists, dramatists, editors and publishers.  In future installments we'll also hear from living prophets and deep thinkers whose words amused or seduced me.  

Mark Twain's publisher, Harper & Bros. was ruled over by Col. George M. Harvey from 1900 to 1915. Bold, forward-thinking and publicity savvy, Harvey aggressively courted Twain, a financially depressed self-publisher, with promises of large advances, inventive marketing and over-the-top publicity. 

Harvey's charm offensive resulted in Twain signing over (for a tidy sum) exclusive rights to all of his future books (as well as serialization rights to Harper’s Magazine).  However, before committing all his future literary output to Harper Bros., Twain agreed to Harvey's prescient proposal to publish his memoirs “100 years hence.” Harvey’s proposal was to have Twain sign 100 copies of his autobiography and place them in a vault until 2000 A.D., when Harper would issue them “in whatever modes should then be prevalent, that is by printing as at present or by use of phonographic cylinders, or by electrical methods, or by any other method which may be in use.” [emphasis added].  

In retro-futuristic fashion, Harvey's proposal, implicitly acknowledged that eBooks would someday appropriate and exploit the printed word.  In a letter to Twain's attorney, Harvey laid out the details of the ambitious plan-- a well thought out gimmick intended to sell more books, but never (to my knowledge) put into action.  In the year 2000, the original purchaser’s heirs would redeem copies for an additional payment of $50.00 of $100.  

It is fitting that Twain would project himself into the digital future. He was an early adopter of new technologies. Tom Sawyer was the first novel written on a typewriter.   He used wax recording cylinders to dictate his autobiography.  He was also the the first person to have a telephone installed in a private home.  Commenting on the Telharmonium, which delivered synthesized music, performed live from a remote location over a regular telephone wire to his home, Twain said "The trouble with these beautiful, novel things is that they interfere so with one's arrangements.  Every time I see or hear a new wonder like this I have to postpone my death right off."  In an October 19, 1900 letter to Twain's attorney, Harvey commented that the proposal "would doubtless appeal to [Twain's] vivid imagination and would form an interesting clause in the agreement.” 

Unlike present day HarperCollins Publishers, whose mid-to late-twentieth century author agreements did not expressly address "electronic methods," Twain's 1900 contract with Col. George Harvey was masterful (from a legal perspective) at addressing a major contractual"what if" -- how future technologies might impact book publishing.  

Founding Fathers of HarperCollins Publishers

The Harper Bros.
Groucho, Harpo, Chico and  Zeppo


Letter from Mark Twain to Harper Bros. Accepting Contract Terms


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