Showing posts with label Mark Twain's Memoir. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mark Twain's Memoir. Show all posts
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Twain, Tesla, and Tech: How Mark Twain's Publishing Contract Foresaw the Digital Age

By Lloyd Jassin

From 1900 to 1915, Harper Brothers, Mark Twain's publisher, was led by the bold and publicity-savvy Col. George M. Harvey. Harvey aggressively courted the financially struggling Twain - a failed self-publisher - proposing an innovative publishing deal for his unpublished memoirs.

The proposal:

  • Twain & Tesla
    Twain would sign 100 copies of his autobiography
  • These would be stored in a vault until 2000 A.D.
  • Harper would then publish 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."

Informed most likely by his dual interests in the law and novelties, Twain's publishing agreement is distinguished by what may be the first "electronic rights" or "future technology" clause to appear in a publishing contract.

Unlike HarperCollins' mid-twentieth century contracts, which did not expressly address electronic methods, Twain's 1900 contract with Harvey was masterful (from a legal perspective) at addressing a major contractual "what if" -- how future technologies might impact book publishing. 

The strategy of delaying his memoirs' release for one hundred years cleverly sidestepped legal entanglements while preserving Twain's unvarnished truths about friends and foes alike. Of course, one has to wonder if the story of one hundred signed copies was fabricated, or whether a time capsule containing a trove of signed first editions truly resides somewhere in the Harper archives.

Twain's embrace of technology:

  • First novel written on a typewriter: "Tom Sawyer"
  • Used wax recording cylinders to dictate his autobiography
  • First person to have a telephone installed in a private home
  • Enjoyed the Telharmonium, an early music streaming technology that delivered live music performed at a remote location over a regular telephone wire to Twain's home
  • Quickly adopted electric lighting in his home, being among the early users of this technology

Twain also heavily invested in a typesetting machine that revolutionized the printing industry but ultimately bankrupted him. On January 6, 1889, Twain activated the Paige Compositor. "At 12:20 this afternoon," Twain wrote, "a line of movable type was spaced and justified by machinery for the first time in the history of the world! And I was there to see it. It was done automatically, instantly, perfectly."

Twain quipped about new technologies, "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."

Fast forward to 2024: Publishers Grappling with AI

Just as Harvey's contract anticipated future technologies, today's publishers face a new frontier: Artificial Intelligence. The industry is now grappling with how to address AI in author contracts, considering its potential impact on:

  • Authorship: Defining what constitutes an "AI-assisted" work
  • Copyright: Determining ownership of AI-generated content
  • Royalties: Structuring fair compensation for AI-involved creations
  • Competition: Balancing AI-generated books with human-authored works
This parallel between Twain's era and our own highlights the ongoing challenge for authors and publishers: staying ahead of technological advancements while protecting authors' rights and the integrity of literary creation.

As we navigate these uncharted waters, Harvey's forward-thinking approach serves as a reminder of the importance of adaptability and foresight in publishing contracts. The industry continues to evolve, facing new challenges and opportunities with each technological leap, from Twain's typewriter to today's AI.


Letter from Mark Twain to Harper Bros. Accepting Contract Terms

Mark Twain's eBook Contract