Dear Scott/Dear Max

Though it’s been out of print for years, I’d like to submit that Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence should be required reading for every editor and every author (or anyone else interested in learning how the publishing industry works) who can get their hands on it. It’s a real shame that it’s out of print; I would love to send a copy to every new author I sign.

I originally read it a few years ago, but I’m dipping back into it again now (I’ve been buying up used copies when they’ve cropped up on eBay, Alibris, and Amazon’s used book department). The collected letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins (editor par excellence to Edith Wharton, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway, just to name a few), illustrate the various aspects, intricacies, tensions, and ultimate value of the ideal editor/author relationship. Every conceivable aspect of this relationship is detailed in the book, and there’s gold on almost every page.

This behind-the-scenes look at the crafting and delivery of content as a collaboration between editor and author is priceless for the access it offers. (It’s also quite interesting to learn that Fitzgerald couldn’t spell or punctuate grammatically correct sentences by himself to save his life. All errors in the quotes in this post are sic.) Take, for example, this passage from Fitzgerald regarding the title for the book he was working on at the time:

I have now decided to stick to the title I put on the book [Trimalchio in West Egg]. The only other titles that seem to fit it are Trimalchio and On the Road to West Egg. I had two others Gold-hatted Gatsby and The High-bouncing Lover but they seemed to light.

This note came in response to the following suggestion, gently offered by Perkins:

I always thought that “The Great Gatsby” was a suggestive and effective title, — with only the vaguest knowledge of the book, of course. But anyway, the last thing we want to do is divert you to any degree, from your actual writing, and if you let matters rest just as they are now, we shall be perfectly satisfied. The book is the thing, and all the rest is inconsiderable beside it.

In the end, we know who won this battle, but Fitzgerald stuck to his guns, even as the book was going to press:

I wired you on a chance about the title — I wanted to change back to Gold-hatted Gasby but I don’t suppose it would matter. That’s the one flaw in the book — I feel Trimalchio might have been best after all.

The title of Fitzgerald’s first book with Maxwell Perkins (and Scribner’s) also underwent a title change, though Fitzgerald suggested this switch. Perkins actually thought that “The Education of a Personage … strikes us as an excellent title,” but Fitzgerald bluntly changes his own mind in his follow-up letter on the subject:

The title has been changed to This Side of Paradise from those lines of Richard Brookes: “… Well, this side of paradise/ There’s little comfort in the wise.”

These exchanges are perhaps the juiciest, and the most fun with the benefit of hindsight, but the interesting and substantive parts of their letters begin from Fitzgerald’s very first contact with Perkins, in which, even before the editor has even seen a bit of the book or expressed any interest in signing it, the author is already trying to dictate the precise month in which the book should be released:

Now what I want to ask you is this — if I send you the book by August 20th and you decide you could risk its publication (I am blatantly confident that you will) would it be brought out in October, say, or just what would decide its date of publication?

Perkins’ response captures perfectly how the needs of the publisher to have sufficient time to adequately sell the book to buyers make this timeline impossible (a conversation I’ve had with more than a couple authors myself):

But there is one thing certain: no publisher could publish this book in October without greatly injuring its chances; for the canvasing of the trade for the fall season began several months ago, and would now order grudgingly, and in much lesser quantities than they would at the beginning of the season.

Of course, even in the face of a well-articulated business reality, the author always reserves the right to still be upset and to make bizarre, passive-aggressive, guilt-inducing statements regarding the personal nature of his disappointment:

Both last week & this noon at lunch I tried to say this but both times couldn’t get started because you personally have always been so good to me — but Mr. Perkins I really am very upset about my book not coming out next month. I explained to you the reasons financial, sentimental & domestic but more than any of these its for the psychological effect on me.

Once Perkins expresses early interest in the book that would become This Side of Paradise, he immediately gets down to business. One great voyeuristic insight offered by the book is its peek into the specific terms of Fitzgerald’s publishing contracts:

As for terms, we shall be glad to pay a royalty of 10% on the first five thousand copies and of 15% thereafter, — which by the way, means more today than it used to now that retail prices upon which the percentage is calculated, have so much advanced.

It seems that in almost every other letter, Fitzgerald is asking for another advance to get him through, which Perkins usually ends up giving him. Fitzgerald’s gratitude for this understanding brings him to request a smaller advance on his next book. Not knowing this is the cause for Fitzgerald’s changed terms, Perkins responds:

Why do you ask for a lower royalty on this than you had on the last book where it changed from 15% to 17 1/2% after 20,000 and to 20% after 40,000? Did you do it in order to give us a better margin for advertising? We shall advertise very energetically anyhow and if you stick to the old terms you will sooner overcome the advance. Naturally we should like the ones you suggest better, but there is no reason you should get less on this than you did on the other.

Fitzgerald sees the reasoning behind Max’s interest on his behalf and decides to revise his original request for terms with this compromise:

I made the royalty smaller because I wanted to make up for all the money you’ve advanced these two years by letting it pay a sort of interest on it. But I see by calculating I made it too small — a difference of 2000 dollars. Let us call it 15% up to 40,000 and 20% after that. That’s a fair contract all around.

Of course, once the terms have all been settled, the content has been finished, and the book is actually in print, Fitzgerald questions and bemoans his book’s sales:

I thank you very much for the $1500. I thought as there have been 41,000 printed the sales would be more than 33,796, but I suppose there are about five thousand in stock and two thousand given away or sold at cost.

I could go on and on with gems from this book (I’m not exaggerating when I say there’s something amazingly relevant on almost every page of the book), as their discussions cover marketing, promotion, cover design, reviews, proofs and galleys, and just about everything else I discuss with my authors on a daily basis (including actual book content), but I leave you to check out all the gory details for yourselves, if you are so inclined (and I do hope you are).

I hope I’m not giving away the ending to anyone by pointing out the result: a successful and respected editor and a happy author, who, through all of his editor’s feedback and guidance, was able to say, “I feel I’ve certainly been lucky to find a publisher who seems so interested generally in his authors.”

Oh yeah, and more than a few pretty good books. 😉