The First “Woman’s Page,” “Literary Leaves,” and Entering Scribner’s: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 10

Mr. Beecher’s weekly newspaper “syndicate” letter was not only successful in itself, it made liberal money for the writer and for its two young publishers, but it served to introduce Edward Bok’s proposed agency to the newspapers under the most favorable conditions. With one stroke, the attention of newspaper editors had been attracted, and Edward concluded to take quick advantage of it. He organized the Bok Syndicate Press, with offices in New York, and his brother, William J. Bok, as partner and active manager. Edward’s days were occupied, of course, with his duties in the Holt publishing house, where he was acquiring a first-hand knowledge of the business.

Edward’s attention was now turned, for the first time, to women and their reading habits. He became interested in the fact that the American woman was not a newspaper reader. He tried to find out the psychology of this, and finally reached the conclusion, on looking over the newspapers, that the absence of any distinctive material for women was a factor. He talked the matter over with several prominent New York editors, who frankly acknowledged that they would like nothing better than to interest women, and make them readers of their papers. But they were equally frank in confessing that they were ignorant both of what women wanted, and, even if they knew, of where such material was to be had. Edward at once saw that here was an open field. It was a productive field, since, as woman was the purchasing power, it would benefit the newspaper enormously in its advertising if it could offer a feminine clientele.

There was a bright letter of New York gossip published in the New York Star, called “Bab’s Babble.” Edward had read it, and saw the possibility of syndicating this item as a woman’s letter from New York. He instinctively realized that women all over the country would read it. He sought out the author, made arrangements with her and with former Governor Dorscheimer, owner of the paper, and the letter was sent out to a group of papers. It was an instantaneous success, and a syndicate of ninety newspapers was quickly organized.

Edward followed this up by engaging Ella Wheeler Wilcox, then at the height of her career, to write a weekly letter on women’s topics. This he syndicated in conjunction with the other letter, and the editors invariably grouped the two letters. This, in turn, naturally led to the idea of supplying an entire page of matter of interest to women. The plan was proposed to a number of editors, who at once saw the possibilities in it and promised support. The young syndicator now laid under contribution all the famous women writers of the day; he chose the best of the men writers to write on women’s topics; and it was not long before the syndicate was supplying a page of women’s material. The newspapers played up the innovation, and thus was introduced into the newspaper press of the United States the “Woman’s Page.”

The material supplied by the Bok Syndicate Press was of the best; the standard was kept high; the writers were selected from among the most popular authors of the day; and readability was the cardinal note. The women bought the newspapers containing the new page, the advertiser began to feel the presence of the new reader, and every newspaper that could not get the rights for the “Bok Page,” as it came to be known, started a “Woman’s Page” of it own. Naturally, the material so obtained was of an inferior character. No single newspaper could afford what the syndicate, with the expense divided among a hundred newspapers, could pay. Nor had the editors of these woman’s pages either a standard or a policy. In desperation they engaged any person they could to “get a lot of woman’s stuff.” It was stuff, and of the trashiest kind. So that almost coincident with the birth of the idea began its abuse and disintegration; the result we see in the meaningless presentations which pass for “woman’s pages” in the newspaper of to-day.

This is true even of the woman’s material in the leading newspapers, and the reason is not difficult to find. The average editor has, as a rule, no time to study the changing conditions of women’s interests; his time is and must be engrossed by the news and editorial pages. He usually delegates the Sunday “specials” to some editor who, again, has little time to study the ever-changing women’s problems, particularly in these days, and he relies upon unintelligent advice, or he places his “woman’s page” in the hands of some woman with the comfortable assurance that, being a woman, she ought to know what interests her sex.

But having given the subject little thought, he attaches minor importance to the woman’s “stuff,” regarding it rather in the light of something that he “must carry to catch the women”; and forthwith he either forgets it or refuses to give the editor of his woman’s page even a reasonable allowance to spend on her material. The result is, of course, inevitable: pages of worthless material. There is, in fact, no part of the Sunday newspaper of to-day upon which so much good and now expensive white paper is wasted as upon the pages marked for the home, for women, and for children.

Edward Bok now became convinced, from his book-publishing association, that if the American women were not reading the newspapers, the American public, as a whole, was not reading the number of books that it should, considering the intelligence and wealth of the people, and the cheap prices at which books were sold. He concluded to see whether he could not induce the newspapers to give larger and more prominent space to the news of the book world.

Owing to his constant contact with authors, he was in a peculiarly fortunate position to know their plans in advance of execution, and he was beginning to learn the ins and outs of the book-publishing world. He canvassed the newspapers subscribing to his syndicate features, but found a disinclination to give space to literary news. To the average editor, purely literary features held less of an appeal than did the features for women. Fewer persons were interested in books, they declared; besides, the publishing houses were not so liberal advertisers as the department stores. The whole question rested on a commercial basis.

Edward believed he could convince editors of the public interest in a newsy, readable New York literary letter, and he prevailed upon the editor of the New York Star to allow him to supplement the book reviews of George Parsons Lathrop in that paper by a column of literary chat called “Literary Leaves.” For a number of weeks he continued to write this department, and confine it to the New York paper, feeling that he needed the experience for the acquirement of a readable style, and he wanted to be sure that he had opened a sufficient number of productive news channels to ensure a continuous flow of readable literary information.

Occasionally he sent to an editor here and there what he thought was a particularly newsy letter just “for his information, not for sale.” The editor of the Philadelphia Times was the first to discover that his paper wanted the letter, and the Boston Journal followed suit. Then the editor of the Cincinnati Times-Star discovered the letter in the New York Star, and asked that it be supplied weekly with the letter. These newspapers renamed the letter “Bok’s Literary Leaves,” and the feature started on its successful career.

Edward had been in the employ of Henry Holt and Company as clerk and stenographer for two years when Mr. Cary sent for him and told him that there was an opening in the publishing house of Charles Scribner’s Sons, if he wanted to make a change. Edward saw at once the larger opportunities possible in a house of the importance of the Scribners, and he immediately placed himself in communication with Mr. Charles Scribner, with the result that in January, 1884, he entered the employ of these publishers as stenographer to the two members of the firm and to Mr. Edward L. Burlingame, literary adviser to the house. He was to receive a salary of eighteen dollars and thirty-three cents per week, which was then considered a fair wage for stenographic work. The typewriter had at that time not come into use, and all letters were written in long-hand. Once more his legible handwriting had secured for him a position.

Edward Bok was now twenty-one years of age. He had already done a prodigious amount of work for a boy of his years. He was always busy. Every spare moment of his evenings was devoted either to writing his literary letter, to the arrangement or editing of articles for his newspaper syndicate, to the steady acquirement of autograph letters in which he still persisted, or to helping Mr. Beecher in his literary work. The Plymouth pastor was particularly pleased with Edward’s successful exploitation of his pen work; and he afterward wrote: “Bok is the only man who ever seemed to make my literary work go and get money out of it.”

Enterprise and energy the boy unquestionably possessed, but one need only think back even thus far in his life to see the continuous good fortune which had followed him in the friendships he had made, and in the men with whom his life, at its most formative period, had come into close contact. If we are inclined to credit young Bok with an ever-willingness to work and a certain quality of initiative, the influences which played upon him must also be taken into account.

Take, for example, the peculiarly fortuitous circumstances under which he entered the Scribner publishing house. As stenographer to the two members of the firm, Bok was immediately brought into touch with the leading authors of the day, their works as they were discussed in the correspondence dictated to him, and the authors’ terms upon which books were published. In fact, he was given as close an insight as it was possible for a young man to get into the inner workings of one of the large publishing houses in the United States, with a list peculiarly noted for the distinction of its authors and the broad scope of its books.

The Scribners had the foremost theological list of all the publishing houses; its educational list was exceptionally strong; its musical list excelled; its fiction represented the leading writers of the day; its general list was particularly noteworthy; and its foreign department, importing the leading books brought out in Great Britain and Europe, was an outstanding feature of the business. The correspondence dictated to Bok covered, naturally, all these fields, and a more remarkable opportunity for self-education was never offered a stenographer.

Mr. Burlingame was known in the publishing world for his singularly keen literary appreciation, and was accepted as one of the best judges of good fiction. Bok entered the Scribner employ as Mr. Burlingame was selecting the best short stories published within a decade for a set of books to be called “Short Stories by American Authors.” The correspondence for this series was dictated to Bok, and he decided to read after Mr. Burlingame and thus get an idea of the best fiction of the day. So whenever his chief wrote to an author asking for permission to include his story in the proposed series, Bok immediately hunted up the story and read it.

Later, when the house decided to start Scribner’s Magazine, and Mr. Burlingame was selected to be its editor, all the preliminary correspondence was dictated to Bok through his employers, and he received a first-hand education in the setting up of the machinery necessary for the publication of a magazine. All this he eagerly absorbed.

He was again fortunate in that his desk was placed in the advertising department of the house; and here he found, as manager, an old-time Brooklyn boy friend with whom he had gone to school: Frank N. Doubleday, to-day the senior partner of Doubleday, Page and Company. Bok had been attracted to advertising through his theatre programme and Brooklyn Magazine experience, and here was presented a chance to learn the art at first hand and according to the best traditions. So, whenever his stenographic work permitted, he assisted Mr. Doubleday in preparing and placing the advertisements of the books of the house.

Mr. Doubleday was just reviving the publication of a house-organ called The Book Buyer, and, given a chance to help in this, Bok felt he was getting back into the periodical field, especially since, under Mr. Doubleday’s guidance, the little monthly soon developed into a literary magazine of very respectable size and generally bookish contents.

The house also issued another periodical, The Presbyterian Review, a quarterly under the editorship of a board of professors connected with the Princeton and Union Theological Seminaries. This ponderous-looking magazine was not composed of what one might call “light reading,” and as the price of a single copy was eighty cents, and the advertisements it could reasonably expect were necessarily limited in number, the periodical was rather difficult to move. Thus the whole situation at the Scribners’ was adapted to give Edward an all-round training in the publishing business. It was an exceptional opportunity.

He worked early and late. An increase in his salary soon told him that he was satisfying his employers, and then, when the new Scribner’s Magazine appeared, and a little later Mr. Doubleday was delegated to take charge of the business end of it, Bok himself was placed in charge of the advertising department, with the publishing details of the two periodicals on his hands.

He suddenly found himself directing a stenographer instead of being a stenographer himself. Evidently his apprentice days were over. He had, in addition, the charge of sending all the editorial copies of the new books to the press for review, and of keeping a record of those reviews. This naturally brought to his desk the authors of the house who wished to see how the press received their works.

The study of the writers who were interested in following the press notices of their books, and those who were indifferent to them became a fascinating game to young Bok. He soon discovered that the greater the author, the less he seemed to care about his books once they were published. Bok noticed this, particularly, in the case of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose work had attracted him, but, although he used the most subtle means to inveigle the author into the office to read the press notices, he never succeeded. Stevenson never seemed to have the slightest interest in what the press said of his books.

One day Mr. Burlingame asked Bok to take some proofs to Stevenson at his home; thinking it might be a propitious moment to interest the author in the popular acclaim that followed the publication of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bok put a bunch of press notices in his pocket. He found the author in bed, smoking his inevitable cigarette.

As the proofs were to be brought back, Bok waited, and thus had an opportunity for nearly two hours to see the author at work. No man ever went over his proofs more carefully than did Stevenson; his corrections were numerous; and sometimes for ten minutes at a time he would sit smoking and thinking over a single sentence, which, when he had satisfactorily shaped it in his mind, he would recast on the proof.

Stevenson was not a prepossessing figure at these times. With his sallow skin and his black dishevelled hair, with finger-nails which had been allowed to grow very long, with fingers discolored by tobacco—in short, with a general untidiness that was all his own, Stevenson, so Bok felt, was an author whom it was better to read than to see. And yet his kindliness and gentleness more than offset the unattractiveness of his physical appearance.

After one or two visits from Bok, having grown accustomed to him, Stevenson would discuss some sentence in an article, or read some amended paragraph out loud and ask whether Bok thought it sounded better. To pass upon Stevenson as a stylist was, of course, hardly within Bok’s mental reach, so he kept discreetly silent when Stevenson asked his opinion.

In fact, Bok reasoned it out that the novelist did not really expect an answer or an opinion, but was at such times thinking aloud. The mental process, however, was immensely interesting, particularly when Stevenson would ask Bok to hand him a book on words lying on an adjacent table. “So hard to find just the right word,” Stevenson would say, and Bok got his first realization of the truth of the maxim: “Easy writing, hard reading; hard writing, easy reading.”

On this particular occasion when Stevenson finished, Bok pulled out his clippings, told the author how his book was being received, and was selling, what the house was doing to advertise it, explained the forthcoming play by Richard Mansfield, and then offered the press notices.

Stevenson took the bundle and held it in his hand.

“That’s very nice to tell me all you have,” he said, “and I have been greatly interested. But you have really told me all about it, haven’t you, so why should I read these notices? Hadn’t I better get busy on another paper for Mr. Burlingame for the next magazine, else he’ll be after me? You know how impatient these editors are.” And he handed back the notices.

Bok saw it was of no use: Stevenson was interested in his work, but, beyond a certain point, not in the world’s reception of it. Bok’s estimate of the author rose immeasurably. His attitude was in such sharp contrast to that of others who came almost daily into the office to see what the papers said, often causing discomfiture to the young advertising director by insisting upon taking the notices with them. But Bok always countered this desire by reminding the author that, of course, in that case he could not quote from these desirable notices in his advertisements of the book. And, invariably, the notices were left behind!

It now fell to the lot of the young advertiser to arouse the interest of the public in what were to be some of the most widely read and best-known books of the day: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy; Andrew Carnegie’s Triumphant Democracy; Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady, or the Tiger? and his Rudder Grange, and a succession of other books.

The advertising of these books keenly sharpened the publicity sense of the developing advertising director. One book could best be advertised by the conventional means of the display advertisement; another, like Triumphant Democracy, was best served by sending out to the newspapers a “broadside” of pungent extracts; public curiosity in a novel like The Lady, or the Tiger? was, of course, whetted by the publication of literary notes as to the real denouement the author had in mind in writing the story. Whenever Mr. Stockton came into the office Bok pumped him dry as to his experiences with the story, such as when, at a dinner party, his hostess served an ice-cream lady and a tiger to the author, and the whole company watched which he chose.

“And which did you choose?” asked the advertising director.

“_Et tu, Brute?_” Stockton smilingly replied. “Well, I’ll tell you. I asked the butler to bring me another spoon, and then, with a spoon in each hand, I attacked both the lady and the tiger at the same time.”

Once, when Stockton was going to Boston by the night boat, every room was taken. The ticket agent recognized the author, and promised to get him a desirable room if the author would tell which he had had in mind, the lady or the tiger.

“Produce the room,” answered Stockton.

The man did. Stockton paid for it, and then said: “To tell you the truth, my friend, I don’t know.”

And that was the truth, as Mr. Stockton confessed to his friends. The idea of the story had fascinated him; when he began it he purposed to give it a definite ending. But when he reached the end he didn’t know himself which to produce out of the open door, the lady or the tiger, “and so,” he used to explain, “I made up my mind to leave it hanging in the air.”

To the present generation of readers, all this reference to Stockton’s story may sound strange, but for months it was the most talked-of story of the time, and sold into large numbers.

One day while Mr. Stockton was in Bok’s office, A. B. Frost, the illustrator, came in. Frost had become a full-fledged farmer with one hundred and twenty acres of Jersey land, and Stockton had a large farm in the South which was a financial burden to him.

“Well, Stockton,” said Frost, “I have found a way at last to make a farm stop eating up money. Perhaps it will help you.”

Stockton was busy writing, but at this bit of hopeful news he looked up, his eyes kindled, he dropped his pen, and eagerly said:

“Tell me.”

And looking behind him to see that the way was clear, Frost answered:

“Pave it solid, old man.”

When the stories of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Little Lord Fauntleroy were made into plays, Bok was given an opportunity for an entirely different kind of publicity. Both plays were highly successful; they ran for weeks in succession, and each evening Bok had circulars of the books in every seat of the theatre; he had a table filled with the books in the foyer of each theatre; and he bombarded the newspapers with stories of Mr. Mansfield’s method of making the quick change from one character to the other in the dual role of the Stevenson play, and with anecdotes about the boy Tommy Russell in Mrs. Burnett’s play. The sale of the books went merrily on, and kept pace with the success of the plays. And it all sharpened the initiative of the young advertiser and developed his sense for publicity.

One day while waiting in the anteroom of a publishing house to see a member of the firm, he picked up a book and began to read it. Since he had to wait for nearly an hour, he had read a large part of the volume when he was at last admitted to the private office. When his business was finished, Bok asked the publisher why this book was not selling.

“I don’t know,” replied the publisher. “We had great hopes for it, but somehow or other the public has not responded to it.”

“Are you sure you are telling the public about it in the right way?” ventured Bok.

The Scribner advertising had by this time attracted the attention of the publishing world, and this publisher was entirely ready to listen to a suggestion from his youthful caller.

“I wish we published it,” said Bok. “I think I could make it a go. It’s all in the book.”

“How would you advertise it?” asked the publisher.

Bok promised the publisher he would let him know. He carried with him a copy of the book, wrote some advertisements for it, prepared an attractive “broadside” of extracts, to which the book easily lent itself, wrote some literary notes about it, and sent the whole collection to the publisher. Every particle of “copy” which Bok had prepared was used, the book began to sell, and within three months it was the most discussed book of the day.

The book was Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”.

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 9