1907: A Writer Of Books

From a 1907 issue of Success Magazine, a story that could have been published today:

A Writer of Books

by Martin M. Foss

Lydia Simpson was a writer of books. This was a very important fact in Freeport, a fact you learned almost before you had unpacked your trunk for the summer, and heard repeated in the strange awed and wondering way which marked any mention of this combined mystery and honor.

Mrs. Carter would have told you, had you called on her, to sit in the low rocker by the dining-room window. She would have pointed across the yard, filled with apple and pear trees, and over the old cedar hedge, when you mentioned a book you had been reading, holding her hand outstretched till you came to a pause.

“Lydia Simpson, over there, writes books.”

And you would have heard of it in a dozen ways from a dozen people, — but always with that hint of local pride which country folk have in one who has been “in print.”.

It was a subject half pride and half scandal, for Mrs. Simpson was a very trying person. The town’s satisfaction in the possession of a “literary woman” was ever smirched and half concealed under the inevitable restlessness of unsatisfied curiosity. Yes, she wrote books. There was one on the parlor table which she was working on now, and in the bookcase were three which furnished the final testimony, — real books, printed and bound, — bound in cloth, too, with an illustration in one. They were not cheap novels. Then Kenpole, the newsdealer, had the books to sell, and never a sale was made but the news went through the town. They cost a dollar and a half, which made Mrs. Carter sniffle.

“It isn’t likely I’d pay a dollar and a half to read one o’ Lydia Simpson’s books, — why –”

“Did you ever read any of them?”

“Well, yes, I did once. She let me take a copy, and I read it through. It was real good. I was surprised, but then I had to have a good deal more money than I knew what to do with before I’d give a dollar and a half for one of her books. Now wouldn’t you think she’d give her own neighbors a copy — leastwise the folks that live next door?”

Yet there was a human side which dimmed the glory of it all in Freeport eyes. It was very nice to write books, though it didn’t seem to be very profitable; but when literature interfered with the essentials of housework, when the boy always needed fixing up, — well, it didn’t fit Mrs. Carter’s ideas, and Mrs. Carter reflected perfectly the opinion of Drake Street and all Freeport.

Lydia Simpson was a very trying woman. She did not mind telling you that she was an author, but not even Mrs. Carter ever got much beyond that, though Heaven knows she asked even to the amount of pay received.

“Now, Lydia Simpson,” Mrs. Carter once said, “I don’t see any reason for your being so close-mouthed about this writin’ business with your own neighbors, unless there’s something you‘re ashamed of.”

“I suppose authors are never understood in their own generation,” was all the reply she got.

Mrs. Carter told you of this conversation, with irritation in her tone. “And,” she concluded, “I’Il bet there is something she’s ashamed of.”

Lydia Simpson was a writer of books. Her face was heavy, almost stern, her gray hair scraggly with strands which were always inclined to stray to her shoulders. She was not exactly untidy, but her face and her short, thick figure always looked very much like her parlor table. The books there were not piled in even rows, and the papers were always folded inside out, so that, with a miscellaneous collection of manuscript, pens, and blotting paper on the end, the effect was almost storm-tossed. Nobody in Freeport had ever seen her bureau drawers nor her closets since she “took to writing,” but none of the good housekeepers doubted their condition.

When she wrote, which, be it said with shame, she often did in the morning when there ought to have been enough else to do, she usually sat in the rocking-chair by the window with her ink-bottle on the sill and her pad on her knee. You could see her from Mrs. Carter’s, or as you came up Drake Street, her gray head bent forward and her hand moving slowly over the paper.

When you went to Freeport you went to rest. You were tired of the panting life of New York; you were tired of dirt, of noise, and of fads. Freeport rocked you quietly in its slow moving life until you fell in with its easy motion, always swaying, never gaining. Though you amounted to nothing in Freeport eyes because you were a New Yorker you felt your advantage when you talked with Mrs. Simpson. You were an outsider, you were different, you understood: Freeport did not.

“Even when Mr. Simpson was alive I wanted to write a book. I knew that I could, but he always laughed at me. Every time I read a book I felt that I could do better than that. Most books are such silly, trashy things, with handsome women who are wicked, and all that sort of thing. My books are written with a purpose, and, if I do say it, I think they are better than most books, because I have read pretty nearly everything in the town library, and I can tell what is good and what isn’t.”

“I have never read your books,” I ventured, and then by way of apology, “I get very little time to read.”

I held the three volumes in my hand. “Phyllis Hamilton,” “Patience and Power,” and “Sold into Bondage.” I read across their backs, and beneath these titles the author’s name, “Simpson,” — then at the bottom the imprint, “The Household Press.”

Did you know the publishers? They. were in New York. You had heard of them, of course, because you lived in New York. You didn’t know them! Why they have a fine building on Fifth Avenue. And then you knew.

“When will the next book be published?”

There was just a trace of a heavy sigh in Mrs. Simpson‘s voice, a little echo of the pain you had not guessed.

“I don’t know. I hoped to finish it this week, but it is so hard. I am writing a story of St. Paul the Apostle, sort of an historical novel, because I want people to read it, — only there isn’t any fighting. I want to make people see that kind words are the best weapons. They never kill, but they always conquer. I think it is going to be my best book, for I have put myself into it.”

There was nothing but honesty in this, honesty built on perfect faith, which failure had not shattered. The public might not understand her now, but sometime it would, and then her books would sell. “Ben Hur” had not been read till years after it came out, and dozens of other books, she knew, which had languished while the world rushed on, till a master mind found them and brought them back to the people.

“This book I am going to have published in a different way. Would you believe it, I haven’t received a cent for my other books, and I know they have sold.”

Then Mrs. Carter came.

“I just run in, Mis’ Simpson, — Oh! are you here? Why, I didn’t expect to find you or I shouldn’t have come in this old apron. I just wanted to say that I can’t go to the circle to-night. John has been ailin’ for a week, and this noon he said he wouldn’t go out for all the church sociables in the country. He’s got a terrible cold. I am afraid of pneumonia.”

Later Mrs. Carter went away with you, for you must needs go first or not go at all.

She was primed.

“I asked Mr. Kenpole to-day how Mrs. Simpson’s books were selling. He just laughed and said he guessed folks ‘didn’t appreciate ’em.’ I would like to know how much she gets for them. Are authors paid well?”

“Some are rich,” I said, “and others make a good living.”

“Well, if Lydia Simpson makes anything on her books, I am going to take up writin‘.”

“It all depends on the sales of the books. Authors get a percentage of the price of the book on every copy sold, a royalty,” you explained.

The Lower Bay was very calm that evening as I walked along the high green bank to my boarding house. From the hill I could see the broadening ocean, with a fishing sloop drifting in on the tide. The farms ran to the tide line, with the big barns back on the ridge, save for an occasional cottage squatted under the bank. The grass was soft and dark. To the left, over the wooded ridge, the sun showed a narrow red rim. It might have been 1730. Here was a scene for the poet’s pen, — here was a life that was new, so well had it held its youth, — yet Mrs. Simpson with her writing of far away countries she had never seen and far away times she knew not of, would crowd in. If she were with you now, as you came to the jutting rocks of Rendezvous Point, you knew what she would say.

“The bounding waves dashed high –”

Mrs. Simpson wanted advice the next day. She told you so at the circle that night, and you went to her, — not by Mrs. Carter’s house, but the other way; for you had been to Mrs. Simpson’s yesterday, and then, — oh well, she was a widow and you were in Freeport.

“I must make some money out of this book. I know that my books are good. My publishers say so and the newspapers say so. You see, the other books have been published cooperatively. That ’s the way the Household Press publishes all of its books. It is a very fair way, you pay half of the expenses and get half of the profits. I wish my books could be advertised the way some books are.”

The low parlor with its worn furniture seemed very shabby. There was the table with its marble top just showing here and there in the clutter, arid the clock with the painted rose leaves peeling from its sides and the hands pointing toward five.

“Couldn‘t you take my manuscript to New York with you? I’d go myself, but it costs so much, and I can’t leave Theodore. Perhaps you could get some money for it.”

Certainly you would try, though you didn’t know much about publishers.

“You see, I’ve spent almost all I had on my three books. They‘ll be valuable sometime, but I haven’t much left save this house, and I can’t mortgage that.”

Mrs. Carter saw you when you left, for she was in her yard with a trowel, digging round the circular beds of geraniums. It was of no use to go the other way, so you walked toward her, calling out: —

“What a beautiful day it has been!”

“Hasn’t it? I just can’t keep out of the garden, days like these, though the Lord knows there is enough to be doing in the house. How is Mis’ Simpson? Has she got her book done yet?”

“Pretty nearly,” you answered. “I think it’s going to be her best.” As her agent you must begin with confident declarations.

“Do you? Well, I hope so. We feel kind of proud of her, being a real author, though I don’t expect she makes very much out of it. When do you go back? ”

“To-morrow.’ ’

“No! You’re not making much of a stop.”

“I could get but a month,” I said, “though days like these I should like to stay forever.”

“When you do go back, Mr. Rowe, I wish you ‘d do me a little favor. I’d like to find out just what New York people — the folks that read, I mean (you felt the thrust,) — think of Lydia Simpson’s books. And I’d like to know what sort of a place her publishers have got. If you get a real good chance, too, I wish you’d find out how much she gets for writing a book. I know it isn’t any of my business, but I should like to know. She’s so funny about it.”

“I’ll try,” I ventured, and walked away.

* * * * * * *

The manager of the Household Press looked at me sharply through his big goggles as I walked into his little office far up above the bustle of lower Fifth Avenue.

“Another book by Mrs. Simpson,” he said. “ That’s good; she is a good writer.”

“How have her other books sold?” I asked.

“Not as well as we hoped,” he answered; “but maybe they will some time. It’s funny the way some books will lag for years, then start up suddenly. Now ‘Ben Hur’ did that.”

“Do you want to publish this one?”

“Oh, yes! We’ll be glad to do it.”

And you followed up his enthusiasm.

“This time,” I said, “it must be entirely at your expense; for Mrs. Simpson will not pay anything toward the expenses of the book.”

“We don’t publish any other way; half expenses, half profits, is our rule and a good one, too.”

You reached for the manuscript.

“It is no use. She won’t pay anything this time.”

Sliddon’s fingers tightened over it. His eyes roved over my face and body and about the dusty office.

“Well, well,” he said impatiently, “leave it with us for a week and we ’ll see what can be done. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.” ‘

I went back to my littered desk with its accumulated troubles of a month away, and the week became ten days, until out of my mail one morning came a letter in a stiff old-fashioned hand: —

“Dear Mr. Rowe: —

“I have had a very nice letter from Mr.Sliddon this morning, in which he speaks so very highly of my new book and so confidently, that I have written to him to go ahead with it. He thinks it will be the greatest success of the year and cause all my other books to sell. He wants to ‘set it up’ at once, so as to publish it for the Christmas trade. He made me a very nice offer. He is going to pay two-thirds of the expenses this time and give me half of the profits, so that I sent him the three hundred dollars he asked for, and now I can only hope that the world will awake to my books.

“I should have consulted you first if there had
been time, but I am sure you would have
approved. At any rate, I beg you to accept
my sincere thanks for all you have done for me
and my book.

“ I am, sir,
“Respectfully yours,
“Lydia Simpson”

There was pain and wrath in my soul, a pain which came from pity, and a wrath from suspicion of the Household Press. I tore across to Sliddon’s office.

“This is outrageous, sir. It is nothing but thievery. You know the woman’s book won’t sell, and you simply steal her money.”

Sliddon laughed.

“You won’t get any commission this time, I guess,” and then in apparent anger he went on: “Do you think we’d put six or seven hundred dollars into this book just to rob that woman?”

I fairly boiled inside, but I knew that his contracts read that the author was to pay one half of the expenses of manufacturing and marketing the books. I was helpless to attack him, intrenched behind that indefinable word “marketing.” Mrs. Simpson would never know whether he spent one dollar or one thousand.

“How many will you print for the first edition?” I asked.

“That depends on the advance demand.”

“How many did you print of the other books?”

“That is a question which I can not discuss. Frankly, it is none of your business.”

I stamped in wrath, yet I could do nothing. I knew that the five hundred dollars which Mrs. Simpson had paid for each of her other books had paid all of the expenses, and how much besides I could judge from Sliddon’s willingness to accept three hundred when the deal seemed doubtful. Yet I was loyal in my heart when I wrote to Mrs. Carter that night:

“Dear Mrs. Carter: —

“I have just been to the Household Press, where Mrs. Simpson’s books are published. Mr. Sliddon, the manager, speaks very highly of Mrs. Simpson, and especially of her new book which will be out before Christmas. He gave me some press clippings of her other books, which I inclose. You will see that the Terre Haute ‘Times’ says: ‘It is one of the most astonishing stories ever published,’ and the Macon ‘Bee’ calls her ‘the gifted authoress of Freeport.’ The Household Press office is on Fifth Avenue, where nearly all of the large publishers are located. Of course, I couldn’t find out about the pay she received, but I presume it depends on the sales, which would be large on all of her books if the new one makes a hit.

“I hope you and Mr. Carter are well and all my good friends of the summer.

“Sincerely yours,
“Elmer Rowe”

One day the book came, glaring in its red cloth and white letters. I opened it curiously, but with a vague apprehension and pain. I read till my eyes dimmed and then laid it aside almost tenderly. Poor woman! I could see her gray head bent over her knee and her hand slowly moving over the paper. I could see the soft grass round her house, with the over-grown footpath to the back door. Was it this which came out of her mind in that quaint, quiet old town? I would wait a few days before I wrote to Mrs. Simpson.

Vainly I sought for the book in the bookstores, and angrily I searched the book columns for advertisements and reviews. Evidently not a dollar had been spent as yet in “marketing” the books, but I knew that far away, in a little frame house, a woman’s mind painted her name in letters of gold on the scroll of fame.

It was months afterwards, when the soft days of spring were just whispering to me the vacation call, and when my mind went away to the old shores of Freeport, that Mrs. Simpson came. Her face was older by years, with the wrinkles deepened, and the hair thinner and more gray.

The book had failed! And the Household Press had failed, too! Couldn’t the plates and the books be bought and sold to another publisher? There was a five-hundred-dollar mortgage on the house now, almost as much as it would bring.

I went with her to the office of the Household Press. I could see the lines deepen in her face when we went into the musty little office crowded with books and papers. Was this the Household Press?

Sliddon was defiant.

“How much will you sell the plates of the four books for?” I demanded.

His eyes wandered about the office.

“I don’t think I care to sell them,” he answered. “We shall be going again soon.”

“If you do not name a fair price, I shall get a court order for them. They belong to Mrs. Simpson by all right, but you have some claim.”

I thundered this out. Sliddon laughed uproariously.

“You will, eh? If the court can find them it’s welcome to them and so are you.”

“Do you mean to tell me that you never made plates of this book?”

“That’s what, and I never said I would.”

I saw clearly now and Mrs. Simpson saw vaguely. The rascal had never hoped or expected to print a second edition. Yet faith built a new foundation of hope as we went away.

“I may be able to find some publisher who will take them. I know they will sell if people only find out about them.”

Days of weary waiting and waiting followed, — days broken only as one publisher after another returned the volumes, — days when Mrs. Simpson’s gloomy little hall bedroom in a cheap lodging house haunted me everywhere.

Would no publisher tell the truth? Would Mrs. Simpson believe it if they did? tried. I spoke gently at first, and Mrs. Simpson smiled at me.

“You do not understand.”

Then I spoke strongly, with a wrath that grew as the volume of words came forth, words that multiplied as I talked.

“Go back to Freeport. Take in boarders — do something — do anything — but don’t try to write any more books. Sliddon has stolen your money. You have a little left and you can live.”

Mrs. Simpson’s face was flushed.

“I am surprised that you should talk to me this way. Don’t you suppose I know that my books are good? I can tell. You do not understand.”

You did not.

Original page images:




Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s