May 19, 2011

Fern: Great Plans for the Future

At a time when most American newspapers left their articles anonymous, the Irish-born Robert Bonner sought out famous names for his New York Ledger — and paid top dollar to secure their contributions. The focus on well-known bylines helped make that paper popular: between 1851 and 1860, its circulation grew from 2,500 to 400,00 copies. Perhaps no name was more responsible for Bonner's success than the one he announced on May 19, 1855:


The article beneath this headline explained that Fanny Fern, a recent sensation after publishing her scandalously personal novel Ruth Hall, would earn pay equal to "the highest price that has ever been paid by any newspaper publisher to any author." Bonner was not exaggerating. Fern (the pen name of Sara Payson Willis) had struggled as a freelance magazine writer and had decided to focus on books. Bonner offered her $25 per column. She refused. He offered her $50, then $75, before finally settling on $100 per column — indeed, the highest price ever paid for such a writer. Bonner justified the high price tag in his announcement by describing her as "the most popular authoress in this or in any other country."

Fern began serializing "Fanny Ford" a month later, ultimately earning her $1000. Rival newspaper the New York Evening Mirror commented, "We certainly do not know which to admire most, the ability and perseverance of the lady in making a reputation that commands such unheard-of remuneration for the labors of her pen, or the enterprise of the publisher who pays for it." Impressed by Bonner's dedication (and genuine interest in paying what authors were worth), Fern soon agreed to an exclusive contract. She held her role as columnist for the Ledger for the rest of her life (and slightly beyond).

*For the information in this post, I turned to Joyce Warren's Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman (1992). Fern's bicentennial is coming up this summer; expect to read more about her here.

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