By Shawn Coyne | Published: October 28, 2011
Prior to 1952, writers were at the rock bottom of the book publishing hierarchy.
A publisher acquired a book back then like this:
An agent and in many cases the author himself (F. Scott Fitzgerald handled his own book deals) would submit a novel and/or proposal for a work of nonfiction to an editor at a publishing house exclusively. As he did not have to compete with other readers at other houses for the opportunity to publish the property, the anointed editor would not have any pressure—beyond his conscience—to read or even respond to the submission with any great alacrity.
After some weeks passed, the author or agent would write a letter and ask for a decision. In the best of circumstances, the editor would write back and commit to publishing the work. And then he would relay that the publisher would agree to pay the author a particular royalty for every unit sold. But no money would be paid to the writer until dollars came in to the publisher.
But as the writer became more and more successful, the publisher would often find it in his heart to advance some dollars to the poor schlub to tide him over until he delivered his next book. A substantial part of the correspondence between writers and publishers in that era was pleas for financial assistance. However, if the money “advanced” to the writer exceeded his actual royalties, the writer was expected to pay it back.
The only other real stream of revenue for writers was short stories. Fitzgerald and Hemingway would bang these out whenever the wolf knocked at their door. And those two had a lot of feral visitors. At one point during the writing of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald found himself flat broke. So he steeled himself from the bottle and locked himself in a room above the garage of his rented home in Great Neck, NY. (Interesting how the desperate George and Myrtle Wilson lived above their garage in The Great Gatsby, eh?)
In five months, Fitzgerald came out of the garage with eleven short stories, including The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, May Day, and The Ice Palace. As the competition for stories in those days was keen, Fitzgerald did have an agent to place them—the legendary Harold Ober. Ober managed to raise $17,000 for those eleven stories…the equivalent of $300,000 today. The only problem was that Fitzgerald—living beyond his means with a crazy/genius wife who required mucho medical care—ended up blowing $36,000 that year… The great American novelist defined the great American paradox—living a dream on credit.
After The Great Gatsby bombed and the drink had him on the ropes, Fitzgerald went to Hollywood to write screenplays. Short stories weren’t what they once were. You know the rest…another $1,000 a week studio hack cranking out sausage. It killed him (at 44) before he could finish his Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon.
As you can probably tell I’m partial to Fitzgerald. Unlike Hemingway or Melville, he had the guts to inject himself—his authentic vulnerable self, not a fabricated symbolic self—into everything he wrote. (Don’t get me wrong, Melville and Hemingway? Where would any of us be without them?) But Fitzgerald? He was as much Myrtle Wilson as he was Tom Buchanan or Nick Carraway or Daisy or Jay Gatz.
If not for Fitzgerald, I wonder if Eugene O’Neill would ever have had the courage to suck it up and write Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Moon for the Misbegotten or The Iceman Cometh? O’Neill already had the Nobel in his drawer and with debilitating Parkinson’s tremors; he could barely hold a pencil. He wouldn’t have been the first black Irishman to die with secrets. I think Fitzgerald laid the groundwork for the cathartic soul wrenching American writing—like O’Neill’s incredible trifecta—that followed his death. When I read Fitzgerald, I feel like a priest on the other side of a confessional.
So what happened in 1952?
A twenty nine year old macher-agent named Scott Meredith (he’d changed his last name from Feldman to Meredith when he entered book publishing in 1946) was sick and tired of waiting for gentlemen publishers to respond to his submissions. He’d only been in the business six years, but he represented the extremely bankable Pelham Grenville (P.G.) Wodehouse. With Wodehouse in his stable, Meredith was able to get the houses (and most of them were WASP in the extreme) to pay attention.
So instead of going one by one like every other putz, in 1952 Meredith decided to send out his novel of the week to twenty publishers at the same time (alas, the name of the novel he sent has long been forgotten). He informed each publisher that they were in a competitive bidding situation and then set a date when he expected offers to arrive at his office. They did. Meredith sold the book to the publisher who agreed to guarantee an advance against future royalties at the best possible terms. The guarantee meant that the writer wouldn’t have to pay back any “unearned” royalties. With Meredith’s auction, the tide for the novelist and book-length nonfiction writer began to turn.
Three decades later in 1980, The New York Times did one of its evergreen pieces on the character of the literary agent. Here is what they had to say about Scott Meredith…
“He superintends a 49-man shop that represents some 2,000 clients, the most often cited being Norman Mailer. He is a smallish, bespectacled man, though he has been painted by publishers as someone who comes at you with a knife clenched in one fist and a Treasury bag in the other. Talking about his tough-guy style, he remarks, “Very often a publisher will say ‘Isn’t my word good enough,’ and I’ll say, ‘No it’s not. You may be dead tomorrow, I may be dead tomorrow.”
Scott Meredith was far from the ideal champion of the writer (he notoriously charged people just to read their work), but he had the nerve to question the status quo. I’m sure that in 1952, he was as terrified as any of us would be by trying something so radical as changing the way the business operated (is there anything more telling than a man masking doubt and fear with tough talk?), but he did it anyway. And because he did, writers—Meredith was only as powerful as his client list—began their sixty-year climb up in the hierarchy.