February 27, 2010

Twain, Grant, and a massive royalty check

On February 27, 1885, the publishing firm of Charles Webster and Company signed into a contract to produce their first book. The contact was with General Ulysses S. Grant, who was writing his memoirs. The unnamed partner in the company was Mark Twain, a personal admirer of the former Union Army General-turned-President.

Grant was infirm but, according to contemporary sources, insisted on writing every word himself, often with the help of a stenographer (who reported Grant sometimes wrote 10,000 words in one sitting). He worked on his memoir until almost his last breath. As he was preparing it, Twain himself encouraged a man who knew he was racing against time. Grant appreciated the encouragement from the author and, in turn, Twain considered Grant a superior man, remarking, "I was as much surprised as Columbus's cook could have been to learn that Columbus wanted his opinion as to how Columbus was doing his navigating."

Within a few months, 60,000 of the yet-unwritten book were ordered. Soon, the number jumped to 100,000. And Grant kept writing until, as Twain reported, "One day he put his pencil aside and said there was nothing more to do." Grant died two days later. Orders for the book ballooned and the book was finally issued under the title Memoirs.

On February 27, 1886 — exactly one year after the date on Grant's contract — a royalty check for book sales was issued to his widow, splashed with the number $200,000. It was the largest royalty check in publishing history. By the end of its print run, royalties for the book totaled nearly $450,000.

The publishing house of Webster and Company, however, was doomed to perish. Other than Grant's memoirs, it only published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before folding.

1 comment:

  1. Twain thought it obscene that a man of Grant's dignity was living in such reduced circumstances. Albeit, bad decisions were made as regards to his personal finances.....a former General and US President with no decent stipend from which to live, for his sacrifices to his country, from his country.