To Archibald Ogden [Letter 403]

Item Reference Code: 144_OBx_009_001

Date(s) of creation

September 10, 1949


Archibald Ogden


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September 10, 1949

Archie darling,

Thank you for your letter. I didn’t quite believe that I would really get it, at least not so soon, but you did give me a pleasant surprise for once. I can never read or answer a letter of yours without emotion, because it means such a great deal to me—and this, I realize, is my great handicap in regard to you. You don’t want me to take you quite so seriously. All right, don’t protest—this is my turn to bait you a little.

Thank you for what you said about my “new baby.” I was delighted to hear that you find your mind returning to it in the midst of the other things you are reading. I hope that your mind will continue to do so, I hope that you will be really impatient to see the rest of it—and I will do my damndest not to let you down.

Now, if you want to continue that fight about the author-publisher relationship, okay, I’ll continue. Our whole disagreement, I think, lies in the concept of “trust.” You seem to believe that it is moral to trust someone, and you feel that a lack of trust is improper, immoral, and somehow insulting. I, as a rationalist, consider any form of blind faith or trust immoral.

I would not want anyone to trust me blindly, in the sense of accepting my good intentions as a guarantee of a good performance from me in the future. Intentions are not a guarantee of anything, because human judgment is not automatic and infallible. The complete honesty of my intention and desire to write a good book is not an automatic guarantee that the book will be good. The quality of the book will depend on the kind of judgment I exercise in writing it. And any act of human judgment is a new, fresh act each time. A man’s past performance is only an indication of the likelihood that his future performance will have the same quality; an indication, but not a guarantee.

The same applies to a publisher. A publisher’s honest intention to do his best with a book for the purpose of mutual profit to himself and the author is no guarantee of what he will do. It may be his best according to his judgment—but the great

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question mark is: what will be his judgment? Publishing, just like writing, is not an automatic performance. Every book is a new, special problem of its own kind. What may be right for one book may be disastrously wrong for another. (And this is most crucially true of books such as mine, which go contrary to all the established rules and precedents.) Therefore, an author has the right to know in advance what judgment the publisher has passed upon his book, and into what specific action the publisher intends to translate his judgment in practice. An experienced publisher is able to tell, after he has read a manuscript, what he considers the best plan to put it on the market. An author has the right to know this plan, before he decides whether he wants to sell his book to this particular publisher or not.

Publishers do not treat all the books on their list equally, even though “mutual profit” is their aim in regard to every book. They decide, for instance, that an advertising appropriation of $1,000 is all they can afford to risk in the case of one book, but they risk $10,000 in the case of another. You know how frequently and how disastrously publishers have been wrong in a guess of this kind. Yet an author’s life work and livelihood depend upon this guess and upon a series of such guesses. Why, then, do you expect him to rest blindly on the fallible judgment of another man? Do you believe that the economic fate of a book is not a vital concern to the author? And if it is a vital concern, do you believe that he has no right to form his own judgment about it and to act accordingly?

I believe that every man is responsible for every aspect of his life, most particularly for his livelihood. Therefore, it is his moral duty to act upon his own judgment. If he does not use judgment but trusts others blindly to do their best for him, he is a secondhander. When an author decides to sell his book to a publisher, he must have his own idea about what terms he wishes to sell it on, what terms he considers wise, fair and practical. The publisher is free to reject his terms and the author is free to decide whether he is then willing to accept the terms which the publisher offers him, on the basis of how nearly these terms match his own. Such is the pattern of any business transaction. But to expect a finished product on one side of the deal and nothing but good intentions on the other—is the relationship of a paternalistic “benevolent” dictator to an incompetent ward.

You say that your idea of the proper contract between a publisher and his authors is a contract “implying that I trust them to do their job and they trust me to do mine.” To apply this principle to both parties involved, you would have to undertake to publish an author’s book sight unseen. If you do not think that the author has the right to know in advance how the publisher intends to do his job, then the publisher

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has no right to know in advance the kind of job the author has done; then the publisher must agree to spend large sums of money and take great risks, in the case of a successful author, without ever reading the author’s new book. He must then take the content and quality of the book on trust. Would you do that? No? Then, in all justice, you should not expect blind trust from an author, either. Either both parties act blindly, with their mutual past performances as the basis of their trust—or both parties submit a specific job to the judgment of the other and know what they will get before they make the deal. But you cannot expect a full-grown, groomed, pedigreed Persian in exchange for a cat in the bag.

Personally, I would not want a publisher to accept a book of mine without reading it, even if he were willing to do so. This, really, is the basic quarrel between us: I would consider blind trust insulting; I do not want trust, I want rational judgment. You, in this case, consider rational judgment insulting. Do you know that the essence of our argument is actually the issue of reason versus faith? I really don’t think that we will reach an agreement unless we discuss that whole deeper issue. Do you care to? I am willing.

Be that as it may, I was delighted to hear that seeing me influences you toward the desire to return to publishing. I know that it is a difficult decision for you to make at present, but I will hold the wish for my influence to win. I can’t resist adding a lighter touch to your problem: You say that it is difficult for you to decide because you’re broke. Well, since you’re broke on the high salary of the movies, you might as well be broke on the low salary of a publishing house; at least, you would be broke and happy.

With best regards from both of us to both of you, and my love to you always,


P. S. I forgot to say anything about myself. This is long enough, so I’ll mention only that I am back at work on the new book and very happy about it and it’s growing.