[From The Literary World, Boston, 1 August 1874]
We are sorry to see an increasing tendency on the part of some of our best writers to appeal to the public through the agency of publishers of subscription books, so called. The recent example of Mr. Warner [MT's co-author of The Gilded Age] has had a bad effect upon his contemporaries, and scores of the latter are saying to themselves, "Why shall not I, too, have my books published by a subscription house, and thereby get great gain?"
Authors as a class are not satisfied with the pecuniary reward given them by publishers, which is generally ten per cent on the retail price of the book. They think, and not unreasonably, that four hundred and fifty dollars -- which would represent the author's share of the profits on a one-dollar-and-fifty book which reached a sale of 3,000 copies -- is not a sufficient payment for the labor of six months, or, it may be, a year. Few of them -- Gail Hamilton and perhaps one or two others must be excepted -- complain that publishers receive more than a fair share of the profits; but they do think that those profits ought to be larger. The subscription plan offers certain important advantages, the chief of which is in the fact that a book is pushed into currency by the combined personal efforts of many experienced and dauntless men, while a book published in the regular way must depend mainly upon its own merits for its success. A subscription publisher, having agreed to publish a certain book, that would be sold by the regular trade at one dollar and a half, makes it up in such a way -- with thick paper, large type, and cheap illustrations -- that it will bear the price of three dollars. Through the efforts of his agents, he sells from four to twenty times as many copies as the regular dealer would sell; and of course he can afford to allow the author a larger royalty. It would seem, in view of these facts, that the subscription plan was the only true way of publishing books. But several considerations are to be taken into account. Subscription books are in bad odor, and cannot possibly circulate among the best classes of readers, owing to the general and not unfounded prejudice against them as a class.
Consequently, an author of established reputation, who resorts to the subscription plan for the sake of making more money, descends to a constituency of a lower grade and inevitably loses caste, just as Edwin Booth would lose caste, if, induced by the promise of greater pecuniary gain, he should "play to" the pit, instead of the parquet. For this loss no money could compensate.
But the injury resulting from the adoption of the subscription plan by our best writers would not be limited to themselves, but would affect seriously our whole literature. This plan operates directly against the principle that the sale of a book should be proportioned to its merits, and makes these quite subordinate to the arts of importunity and trickery, which Mr. Perkins has so well described in "Scrope," and of which almost every reader has had personal experience, as characteristic of the book-canvasser.