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The Man Behind the Harper's Mark Twain Contract

George Harvey was president of Harper and Brothers publishers from 1900-1915. He engineered the most lucrative contract ever offered an American writer in his exclusive contract with Mark Twain during the last years of Twain's lifetime. The dollar figures he mentions in the following interview have been adjusted [in brackets] for comparable amounts for the year 2005 in order for the reader to fully comprehend their magnitude and value. The inflation calculator at: is the source used to provide these figures. George  Harvey
George Harvey in 1907 interview

The Washington Post, March 3, 1907, p. A12


By James B. Morrow.
New York, March 2.

Who is the best paid writer in the United States? George Harvey, publisher of books and editor of magazines, ought to know. The foremost authors of the day are on his pay roll.

"Mark Twain," he instantly replied when I asked the question. "No other man in the history of letters, either here or in Europe, has ever received 30 cents a word [$6.16 in 2005 dollars] on a contract that is practically unlimited as to time, and absolutely without conditions as to subjects, treatment, or anything else. It is unthinkable that Mark Twain should write a story or article and have it rejected. Even in that inconceivable event, however, he would be paid 30 cents a word just the same. Put into language easily understood, 30 cents a word is equivalent to $360 [$7,388.49 in 2005 dollars] per column in an average-sized newspaper.

"After he returned from his trip around the world, a journey he undertook when he failed in business as a publisher, Clemens could barely earn $6,000 a year [$132,000 in 2005]. I had a talk with him which resulted in a contract to pay 30 cents a word for everything he wrote, whether it was printed or thrown away. No author had ever received more than 10 cents a word on a long contract [$2.22 in 2005]. A. Conan Doyle, the Scotch writer and physician, was paid $1 [$22 in 2005] a word within a year or two for a new series of detective stories, but the engagement was short, and a number of publishers were concerned. Mark Twain earns $59,000 a year [$1,307,180 in 2005]. Indeed. I think his income in 1907 will reach $70,000 [$1,436,649 in 2005].

Earns $1,000 in Three Hours. [$20,523 in 2005]

"Until recently he wrote wholly by hand. Quite unexpectedly he found that he could dictate to a secretary. He was as pleased over the discovery as was President Roosevelt when he happened upon Mount Sinai, Moses, and the Ten Commandments. Now he lights a cigar after breakfast, sits down in his library and dictates for three hours on his autobiography. When he gets up he has earned $1,000 [$20,523 in 2005]. He is a great man, and will live longer than Thackeray, who was verbose, for one thing, and whose vision was confined to a single phase of social development in a single country. Twain is world-wide in his breadth of view. A man of critical judgment said not long since that he is the first novelist of the age. Whatever his rank may be, I am sure he will remain in our literature when brighter stars have lost some of their splendor. He is now free from the worry about money, and is at his best."

"Not a great while ago you called William Dean Howells the first man of letters in America. Why did you give him that distinction?"

"Because he is worthy of it. He is not the most popular author in the country, but technically he is the greatest artist. It is difficult to compare authors. Dickens, Scott, and Thackeray were illustrious, but you cannot stand them in a row and measure them. Mr. Howells, like Mark Twain, is doing his finest work now, but the very best he is capable of is yet to come. As a craftsman in letters he is first among American writers. He loves to toil with words, and there never was a more painstaking workman. The other day I read the manuscript of a new novel he has written and noted his corrections. I a sure there were less than thirty. When anything leaves Mr. Howell's desk it is perfect in all respect--in art as well as in mechanics."

"Have you a contract with him?"

Gave Howells a Contract.

"Yes, and that is the reason he is surpassing his former brilliant achievements. Several years ago the change of literary and other conditions in this country brought a new school of writers into the foreground, and Mr. Howells was almost driven to pot-boiling for a living. He came to my farm in New Jersey one day and we talked the subject over. Then we slept on it. After breakfast next morning I told him I would guarantee him a certain sum of money each year regardless of whether he wrote one line or a million. Men of genius must not be harassed by money matters. Mr. Howells accepted my proposal, and immediately entered upon the most fruitful period of his literature.

"Neither Mark Twain nor Mr. Howells is ever told what to write. Either can choose any subject he pleases, write as much or as little as he thinks fit, and there his worry and responsibility ends. Talent ought not to be hobbled with orders and instructions. So it happens that both Howells and Clemens are making more money than ever before and literature is being enriched by their art. Each new book increases the sales of the old ones already on the market, and thus growing royalties give zest to labor."

"Has any author in America become rich by writing?"

"Not rich as money is counted to-day, but decidedly prosperous when gauged by the earlier standards of wealth in this rapid and prodigal country. I dare say that Winston Churchill made $400,000 on three of his stories [$8,209,428 in 2005]. Mrs. Humphrey Ward's royalties will range from $50,000 [$1,026,178 in 2005] to $100,000 [$2,052,357 in 2005] on every novel she writes."

"What kind of writing is most profitable to the author?"

Fiction Most Profitable Writing.

"Fiction, by all odds. You can figure it out for yourself. It is customary to pay an author 20 percent of the selling price of his book. An edition of 100,000 copies at $1.50 [$30 in 2005] each means $30,000 [$615,707 in 2005] in royalties. However, no single book sells like that nowadays. Six or eight years ago it was different. The public has begun to discriminate and the popular taste, if I may use the term, is much improved. More and better books are bought than ever before. Nevertheless, not one in five out to be bought by anybody."

"Isn't there a large oversupply of writers in the United States?"

"There is an oversupply of mediocrity in all professions. But my philosophy is very broad in that direction. The more lawyers the better. It is so with physicians and writers. The poor ones will disappear and the good ones will go onward in development, live, and be of service to society."

"What chance has a poet in this age?"

"If you mean commercially, none whatever. The public will not buy poetry, except as in a case like Scott whose poetry and prose are sold in sets. Of course, when a man purchase a library he must include the poets if it is to be complete."

"Theoretically, publishers are looking for new writers of talent but is it so practically?"

"Assuredly, but you must remember that a writer may have genius and be without talent or the power of expression; perhaps I had better say the skill of expression. Genius must be the apprentice of drudgery and serve long years at the bench before it becomes art. Recently I wrote something about the young girls of the period--something critical, but not unpatriotic or ungallant. The editor of one of our best periodicals sent me a lot of things which he said were written by young American girls. One was especially good. Really, it was fine. I had never seen it before, but was certain some craftsman had wrought it out with infinite pains and in the dexterity which only comes after long servitude to toil. Sure enough, Mark Twain had written it six or eight years ago. You see what I mean. Skill in letters is very slow. A writer may have ideas, but he must be trained before he can set them into their proper surroundings. So we hear the complaints of amateur genius, of aspiring writers who fail to perceive their own imperfect craftsmanship."

"The man who pays out the money told me that he gives Grover Cleveland $2,000 [$41,000 in 2005] a piece for his short articles. In this instance, I suppose, the name of the author makes the price"

"Undoubtedly. But with due respect to both the buyer and the seller In the case you mention, let me say that all such transactions pertain to advertising rather than to literature."

"Are authors as difficult to manage as stump orators and professional musicians?"

"They are not as sensitive as musicians nor as vain as some orators. Normal in all respects they are sensible and, therefore reasonable. Some of them are very good at business."

If you were a youngster, having your present knowledge of publishing and writing, what would you do?"

Looking at me for a moment through his enormous spectacles framed in brown shell, Col. Harvey replied: "I should travel the same road that I am in. But to think of the youth which is gone is profitless. Set a man of forty back to twenty and he would be a freak. Moreover, he would have a hard time. He would e without the enthusiasm, the courage, and the visions of his first vigor and indispensable ignorance. No, it wouldn't do."

Then the physician to languishing authors and publishers stood up, leisurely turned around twice and sat down. He has slender, far-reaching legs for fast running, and a wide, deep chest for long breathing. Eyes gray. Face as smooth as a boy's. Nose delicate, inquiring, and more shrewd than pugnacious. Vermont has put its drawl into his speech and wrapped him in its quaint atmosphere. There is humor in his face, also energy, which breaks through its mask or repose. Complete the picture with spectacles, the lenses of which are as large as silver dollars. Chinese in clumsiness, but comfortable as a pair of old slippers. The voice is deep and in it are suggestions of a bass solo at a mountain singing school long ago, of kip boots freshly greased, of short, wide trousers, and a paper collar ill at ease.

Began as a Reporter.

George Harvey pen and ink
Sketch of George Harvey from
WASHINGTON POST, March 26, 1905, p. F12.

A young man, but rich through his own eagerness and capability. By profession a newspaper reporter, who, bursting the bonds of a salary, sought acompetence and liberty. Now he is the paymaster of genius. He owns the North American Review; building it up from among its own ruins. Then Harper & Bros. needed a doctor and sent for him. Extraordinary achievements on which hang a robust and stimulating story.

"When did you begin to write for newspapers?" I asked.

"I suppose my service on the Danville Caledonian began when I was thirteen years old. I know I got 5 cents an item, large or small. At the same time I attended the village school and clerked in my father's store, wherein were kept various commodities, liquid and solid, such as kerosene an calico. Two summers later I was editor, reporter, business manager, and pressman on the St. Johnsbury Republican, at a fixed salary of 50 cents a ay. In another year I began to write editorials for a larger paper. I remember I demanded a new fiscal policy for the nation, taking the ground that a tariff for protection was unscientific and inhuman.

"There were other things, too, which didn't suit me. I rejected a part of Jacksonism and denounced the spoils system. Vermont, I clearly saw, had to be saved, and the whole country converted to sound doctrine. I was competent to control the situation, but I thought it the part of prudence to consult with George William Curtis, editor of Harper's Weekly. He was a kind man and answered my letters. In the meanwhile I was doing more or less in my father's specialties, such as axle grease and overalls, an was keeping his accounts."

"Your first magazine article was called 'How Science Won the Game.' When did you write it?"

Famous Story of a Ball Game.

"I must have been about eighteen. I had heard of John Clarkson's curved ball which he pitched for the Boston League Club, and sundry scientific arguments as to its physical possibility. After long practice I learned to pitch two primary curves and taught a young fellow to catch for me. Then the boys of my village challenged the champions of Eastern Vermont. We played at Danville on the Fourth of July, much to the premature amusement of the champions. One by one the huge farmers who were going to eat us up came to the bat, sprained their backs, and struck out. Well, I wrote a report of the game, even using the real names of the players, and sent it to St. Nicholas. When it appeared I received $25. Years afterward the publisher of St. Nicholas told me the demand among the boys of the country was so large that he printed a second edition of the issue which contained my story."

"When you were a youth you read the North American Review, and I have been told that even then you hoped to be its editor some day."

"It was the only magazine I saw in my boyhood. I had no ambition to own or edit it, but I did look forward to the time when it would print one of my articles."

"Did that time come before you bought it?"

"No, and not until six years after I became its owner and editor. As editor I could not consistently accept anything I had written as a contributor. But I didn't give up. I kept trying and finally was successful."

"You left home to go to Springfield, Mass., and be a reporter?"

"I had a standing application at the Republican office for a job. By and by Samuel Bowles sent for me. I borrowed $10 from my sister, who got the money from her grandmother, and set forth. Mr. Bowles said it was enough to give me a place for six months, and was visibly amused when I boldly delivered my ultimatum of $15 a week or nothing. We bargained awhile, and I yielded and accepted $6."

"How did you obtain a position on the New York World?"

Landed on a New York Paper.

"Chicago often sent to Springfield for trained reporters. On demand I went to that city and did railroads. At my father's death I returned to Vermont to settle his business. On my way back to the West I stopped in New York to see the city. Joseph Pulitzer had recently bought the World, and was working his life and eyes out to make it go. I was a journalist from the Western metropolis, and concluded to call on Mr. Pulitzer and wish him Godspeed. There was some trouble about getting into the editorial room, although the World at that time was very humble and poor. I informed the person at the door that I was a journalist from Chicago with a message to Mr. Pulitzer from his brethren in that city. Eventually I got in. Mr. Pulitzer enjoyed my candor and inexperience, but ludicrous as I was I touched his heart when I told him all the boys were hoping and almost praying for his success. Well, that incident was closed by Mr. Pulitzer sending for his city editor and telling him to put me to work.

"I went on space. The World was pinching its pennies and looking at them several times before they were spent. The first week I earned $3. Then I did a little better. Presently Gen. Grant was taken ill, and by some good fortune I got the assignment. During my fifth week, at $5 a column, I earned $125. I approached the cashier to accept it. Fifth avenue looked rather cheap. And I would write home and casually mention it. The cashier, I know him yet, smiled and said, 'I offer my congratulations.'

"Yes," I replied with assumed unconcern, '$125 is not really bad.'

" 'It isn't that,' the cashier said. 'You have been put on the staff and given a salary.'

"Thereupon he handed me an envelop containing $20."

"What did you do?"

"I took the money, clutched twice at the doorknob, and unsteadily sought the fresh air."

Managing Editor at Twenty-six.

"At the age of twenty-six you were managing editor of the World, and a year later had full control of the editorial department of the paper."

"I am not especially interest in the matter, but to keep your record straight let me add that after some reportorial experience on the World I was put in charge of its New Jersey edition. My salary now was $25 a week. But I wanted to get married. One day I was offered $50 a week and an option on some stock to become editor of the Newark Journal. I seized the opportunity--seized, I think, is a good word in this connection--mainly because I was furiously bent on matrimony. I confess, too, that the option fooled me a little. While in New Jersey I was made a colonel on the staffs of Govs. Green and Abbett. I would be obliged if you would say so. My title often occasions unnecessary inquiries and gets my personality confused with the civil war, Cuba, the Philippines, and other localities in this country.

"But I soon returned to the World and had charge of it during the campaign of 1892, Mr. Pulitzer being ill and absent from the office. I became acquainted with William C. Whitney, and after my own health gave way left the World and went to the Metropolitan Street Railroad Company. I saw how things were done and got some franchises for myself on Staten Island and in New Jersey. Then I organized syndicates and built several electric roads. I thought I should like to make a little money. I knew I could never get ahead on a salary."

"You formed a company and got control of the street railroads in Havana?"

"Yes and we have a $15,000,000 [$307,853,554 in 2005] property, and our shares are selling at about $140 [$2,873 in 2005]. When I returned from Havana I was told I could buy the North American Review. There was ink on my fingers and in my blood. Furthermore, I felt flush and imagined I should like a diversion. Good fortune attended me. The Review made some stir and increased in circulation. Then Harper Bros. got into trouble and asked me into their business."

"Where do you live?"

"Chiefly on my farm in New Jersey. I am there every summer, if I am not in Europe. I haven't had a vacation for years. Couldn't find the time, you know. No, I have not been conscious of any bad results. While in England I stole an idea form Alfred Harmsworth, the publisher, who has a bungalow in which he does most of his work. I built one some distance from my house, remote form all domestic noises and interruptions, and at once doubled my capacity and lessened my effort. Accordingly, I haven't felt the need of rest or entertainment."

"What are the ground principles of success?"

"Come back in twenty years, and if I have been successful I shall tell you."

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