Prelude: "This Is
In 1976, my husband Jordan and I set out to build an old-fashioned publishing house. We wanted to bring back worthwhile out-of-print books and to introduce new books by writers who had been rejected by the big presses. We intended to edit and design the books ourselves, store and pack them on our premises, invoice them and deliver them to bookstores.
Wasn't that what Leonard and Virginia Woolf had done?
Well, yes. Of course, they had done it in London, a literary center filled with independent bookshops, and they had done it in the 1920s, when life was certainly simpler. We knew that. But we still thought a good book could make its own way.
And our first book did make its own way. It was A Guide to Non-Sexist Children's Books, with an introduction by the actor Alan Alda, then still starring in the popular television series M*A*S*H. There was no guide like it available in 1976; it received a good deal of publicity because some newspapermen thought it was a ludicrous project and wrote articles disparaging it. Inevitably these articles--coupled, of course, with excellent reviews--helped to sell the book. We sold out our initial five thousand paperback copies in a few months, mostly by mail order, and printed five thousand more.
"This is really easy" we said to each other.
Like many of the things we say to each other, this was wrong.
We were misled because we were selling a reference work that many people wanted; it became apparent later that this was a very different thing from selling the quality reprints and new fiction that we envisioned as the core of our press. Neither of us had a background in trade publishing. I was an academic; Jordan had founded the Poetry Seminar and the poetry magazine Choice. For years he had been publishing an annual directory of Illinois media in connection with the press clipping bureau he had founded in 1956. We did not at first grasp the magnitude of the task we had set for ourselves. We began to discover how difficult it is for a new publisher to get books into bookstores and even into libraries. Librarians must depend on reviews, and reviews are not easy for novice publishers to get. Booksellers rely on publishers' representatives: salespeople in various regions of the country who act as liaisons between publisher and bookseller by sitting down with buyers each season, by appointment, and going through publishers' catalogs with them. Most big publishers have their own salaried salespeople; medium-sized and small publishers use salespeople who work on commission and represent many publishers. In 1976, when we began, these salespeople were in great demand; it took us two years of hard work to get our first sales rep.
Before that, we took our books around to local booksellers ourselves. But we quickly learned that it was definitely declasse for publishers to go around showing their own books.
"Very nice, dear," one veteran bookseller said to me. "But you gotta get a rep."
But most salesmen--there were few women in the field then--seemed to be looking for presses with big backlists (books from previous seasons that went on selling indefinitely) or presses oriented toward the potential Big Book. We approached them with humility: reps on both coasts, in the Midwest, in New England, in the South. Some refused us politely; others did not bother to reply. The few who actually took us on never sent us any orders. There was, for instance, the respected Old Hand who covered only New York City. Every six weeks or so Jordan would call him and plaintively ask why we never got orders from any New York booksellers. "They're watching you," the Old Hand said kindly. "Don't worry. They're watching you."
If we had known about this salesman situation, we might have hesitated to become trade publishers. And we would certainly have hesitated if we had known--as we discovered to our sorrow--that many booksellers habitually paid new small presses last and that some booksellers did not pay new small publishers at all, especially when there was no publishers' representative to urge payment. One bookseller in Ohio bubbled with mirth when I called to ask for our $18. "I have to pay Random House," she said jovially. "You go on the back burner."
We discovered, too, that in the late 1970s, the term "small press" carried a sort of stigma. New publishing houses had sprung up across the country in the midst of the social turmoil resulting from the Vietnam War. Many of these publishers had small budgets and big axes to grind. Some cultivated an appearance of eccentricity and gave their presses odd names. I remember in particular Down There Press and Shameless Hussy. At our first American Library national convention--I believe it was in Detroit in 1976 or 1977--the owner of Shameless Hussy put a large, handprinted sign on her table that read "NO MORE TURKEYS." She sat after the first day with her back to the aisle and refused to talk to librarians. That sort of thing caused many booksellers and salesmen to look askance at new small presses.
But we persevered. Under an imprint called Cassandra Editions, we issued neglected classics by women and brought out so many previously unavailable books by George Sand that the few people who noticed us said that we were a house built on Sand. For a few years, we were the American distributors for Virago, a new feminist press in England whose books dovetailed nicely with our Cassandra Editions. In the fall of 1979, we made a distribution arrangement with Granada Paperbacks, a large English publisher. Granada's rich, varied list enabled us to add important history titles to our own growing backlist.
We published the only children's book by Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Mr. Raccoon and His Friends. When we learned that many titles by Robert Graves were out of print, we contacted his agents and bought world rights to four of his books for advances (against royalties, of course) of about $250 apiece. Graves was still alive at the time and signed the contracts. Many of our writers, like Graves, were on the brink of death when we contacted them. Sylvia Townsend Warner, for one, promised us an introduction to our edition of Lolly Willowes, but unfortunately died before she could write it. Another septuagenarian who passed on shortly after we approached him was Rupert Croft-Cooke, who wrote mysteries under the pen name Leo Bruce. It occurred to us that our letters of inquiry might be considered a sort of death warrant.
But we signed living authors as well. Our list eventually included Fay Weldon, Malcolm Bradbury, Alix Kates Shulman, Francis Steegmuller, and H.R.F. Keating, among many others. Our first original mystery, Murder at the Red October by Anthony Olcott, was well received; paperback rights to it were sold to Bantam by our New York agent. In the fall of 1981, we brought out The Fair Women, a heavily illustrated history of the Woman's Building at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. It received major review attention, all positive.
Gradually, we gathered a national commissioned sales force--our two younger sons Bruce and Eric represented us in the Midwest--along with a Canadian one and developed a good relationship with booksellers and distributors. We passed a kind of milestone when our existence was recognized by Ray Walters, who wrote the "PaperbackTalk" column for the New York Times Book Review. Jordan had sent him our catalogs, along with cheery notes, and phoned him from time to time. I thought this was pushy. But during the fourth or fifth call, Mr. Walters said he had decided it was time he wrote something about us. And he did. We felt that with this column we had somehow arrived.
By the mid-1980s, we had a staff of ten, a backlist of over two hundred titles, and had sold about $100,000 worth of subsidiary rights. Despite various ups and downs, we thought we must be doing something right.
"A Splendid Idea"
It was in 1986, at the American Booksellers Association (ABA) annual convention, that Franklin Dennis first broached the subject of Cheever stories to Jordan. Franklin said that many stories had appeared in magazines over the years which had never been collected in any Cheever volume--not even in the omnibus volume of Cheever stories published by Knopf in 1978. Franklin had been collecting Cheever material for years: proofs and galleys and a few limited editions of single stories. He still lived in Montrose in Westchester County in the house where he had grown up; he knew people who had known John Cheever, and he had met Cheever himself. The Cheevers lived in Ossining, not far from Montrose. Franklin had read many of the uncollected stories and thought they were excellent.
I had begun to read Cheever's stories in the New Yorker when I was in high school. I had given copies of the 1978 collection to our sons Bruce and Eric as gifts; Bruce, especially, admired Cheever's work. But in 1986, Jordan and I were distracted by other projects, and we thought the Cheever suggestion was probably an unrealistic one.
We had first met Franklin in 1980 at a Modern Language Association convention in New York. At that time he was a publicist for Continuum Publishers, whose booth was across the aisle from ours. They were promoting the work of Elias Canetti, who had recently surprised them by winning a Nobel Prize. The decisions of the Nobel Committee have led to many stories about wild-eyed publishers leaping out the door to stop trucks about to drive off, laden with the works of obscure European writers, to the pulping mills.
"Get your Elias Canetti books here," Franklin said to passing academics. He was in his early thirties--a slight person with a mop of unruly black hair and a wry sense of humor. I liked him at once and spent a lot of time talking shop with him in the Continuum booth.
A couple of years later, when he left Continuum to set up his own publicity firm, Franklin called us and came out to Chicago to discuss representing us in New York. I remember that on that initial visit, when we picked him up at his hotel, he mentioned Cheever's death and remarked sadly that Cheever was a great American writer.
Franklin seemed to be an ideal publicist because he did not seem at all like a publicist. He represented several independent publishers and one university press in a soft-spoken manner that inspired confidence. He actually read the books he was presenting, and since most of his publishers turned out quality books, media people trusted Franklin's word. We arranged that, in return for a monthly stipend and expenses, he would present our lists to book review editors in New York, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. He also visited Chicago, where we did our own publicity.
In 1987 at ABA, Franklin brought up the subject of the Cheever stories once again. He said that a friend of his, Tom Glazer, knew Ben Cheever, the middle son, and could arrange a meeting between Ben and Franklin to discuss the project. This gave the idea some solidity, and when we got home from ABA, Jordan remarked that Franklin had great faith in these uncollected stories. I said I knew that Franklin was a devoted Cheeverite but if these stories were really any good, someone else would have collected them by this time. And besides, the Cheevers would probably want a lot of money up front.
"Well, maybe," Jordan said. "But it certainly wouldn't hurt to try, would it?"
These were the fateful words that had gotten us into publishing in the first place. And once more there were no rumbles of thunder, no dead birds falling through the roof, no spectral figure detaching itself from the shadows to warn us off. So I responded the way I always responded to Jordan's ideas.
"That's true," I said. "It can't hurt to try."
Accordingly, on June 15 Franklin wrote the following letter to Ben Cheever:
Dear Mr. Cheever:
I work for Academy Chicago Publishers, a literary publisher of quality now in its eleventh year. A catalog is enclosed.
I much admire your father's short stories. One of my most valued possessions is a set of galleys and a first edition of the 1978 omnibus. Back then I was living over Sally Swope's garage, and Mr. Cheever very kindly inscribed them. To complete the local connection, I add that my tennis pal Tom Glazer passed on your address.
Tom thought that you would be helpful advising Academy Chicago on how to proceed with a volume of stories not in the 1978 edition. That edition includes "stories [that] date from my Honorable Discharge from the Army after World War II," to cite the delightful preface.
I know from interviews that your father noted the existence of some two hundred stories written after "Expelled." Surely there must be excellent ones among these; in fact, I found "The National Pastime" in a short story anthology and it was a wonder. I also have two limited editions: "Homage to Shakespeare" and "The Leaves, the Lion Fish and the Bear."
Would you advise us on, or maybe even be the editor of, these "uncollected" stories? Perhaps you could focus on the project after finishing the book of letters Tom tells me you are working on.
You may be concerned about the effect of publication on your father's literary reputation. It seems to me that at the very least readers will come to appreciate the astounding evolution of his talent. More likely, there are neglected gems. After all, the author has already picked his favorites and so let the critics know his choices for posterity.
I thank you in advance for any help on the enterprize [sic]: how to proceed with permissions and copywrite [sic]; the appropriate people to contact; perhaps even the stories to feature.
for Academy Chicago
Both Sally Swope and the "tennis pal" Tom Glazer, a noted folksinger, were longtime residents of Westchester County. Mary Cheever was later to refer to Mrs. Swope, in a deposition, as "a woman of wealth and importance." Franklin evidently hit all the right notes in this letter because Ben telephoned him on July 2. He said he thought the idea of the uncollected stories was a good one, although he himself was too busy to edit them as Franklin had suggested he do; he was taking a "sabbatical" from his job as an editor at Reader's Digest to edit the collection of his father's letters that Tom Glazer had mentioned to Franklin. But he had no objection to Franklin's editing the stories, and he told Franklin to write to Mrs. Cheever and to Maggie Curran at International Creative Management (ICM), his mother's agents, and to send copies of the letters to him. (Ben was under the mistaken impression that ICM "controlled" some Cheever material.) He also suggested that Franklin write to Joy Weiner at the New Yorker, which held publishing rights to the bulk of John Cheever's stories. The two men arranged to meet for lunch toward the end of July.
Franklin dutifully wrote to Mary Cheever on July 10:
Dear Mrs. Cheever:
I was delighted to hear from your son Ben that the idea of publishing "uncollected" John Cheever stories is feasible.
Certainly, there are many, many stories to choose from and I feel certain that a number are excellent. At the very least, a new volume will allow readers to appreciate the remarkable evolution of Mr. Cheever's talent.
Academy Chicago Publishers reiterates its interest in publishing previously uncollected stories; that is, short stories Mr. Cheever did not select for the 1978 omnibus.
Academy Chicago looks forward to discussing with you and other family members such questions as locating the stories, deciding on those appropriate for publication, resolving copyright questions, the introduction and the foreword.
The publishers underscore their concern with producing a volume--or even volumes--which meet your collective approval. I mean, in particular, matters of format and design. Academy Chicago, of course, will take on all editorial, copyright and production work.
Although Academy Chicago, a high quality literary publisher, cannot afford a large advance, they will pay full royalties on all stories in the volume(s) irrespective of their copyright status.
At lunch next week, Ben and I will explore this exciting project more fully. I trust you will pass on to him any questions or concerns you may have.
Franklin copied this letter to Ben and followed it on July 14 with one to Maggie Curran, as Ben had told him to do. Maggie was assistant to Lynn Nesbit, who had been at ICM for twenty-three years and was a vice president of that large and prestigious literary agency. Mary Cheever was Lynn Nesbit's client, but it was Maggie who usually dealt with her.
Dear Ms. Curran:
Ben Cheever, the son of the late John Cheever, suggested that I write you to request information about the writer's short stories. International Creative Management controls copyright for many of these.
To debrief you a bit, I have enclosed a recent letter to Mary Cheever. This letter spells out the interest Academy Chicago Publishers has in doing volume(s) of "uncollected" John Cheever stories.
Ben Cheever had asked me to write a formal letter of intention to Mary Cheever after I had previously contacted Ben and told him about the book idea of "uncollected" stories. Both Ben and Mary Cheever had given Academy Chicago a positive response.
Because John Cheever was so prolific, there are many stories to review for possible inclusion in the "uncollected" volume. It was Ben Cheever's idea that I start the inventory of the short stories by asking exactly what works International Creative Management controls; I mean which stories International Creative Management holds the copyright for.
In the near future, Ben Cheever and I are going to meet to review this project. I hope that you can conveniently provide copyright information about his father's short stories.
In closing, I want to pass on greetings from Jordan Miller of Academy Chicago. Your paths have crossed agreeably and he wanted to be remembered to you.
for Academy Chicago
Ben had given Franklin to understand that ICM controlled some copyrights: it would have been unusual for an agent to do this, especially in this case because ICM had not represented John Cheever when he was alive.
Mary Cheever did not reply to Franklin's letter, but on July 24, Maggie Curran wrote to him.
Dear Franklin Dennis:
I think the idea of a collection of John Cheever's short stories not previously published in volume form is a splendid idea. However, ICM is at a slight disadvantage in this area as we never represented any of the published collections including the recent Knopf THE STORIES OF JOHN CHEEVER. We have some records, including the result of a Copyright search done by John's attorney that goes back to 1951, a record of two early collections, SOME PEOPLE PLACES AND THINGS THAT WILL NOT APPEAR IN MY NEXT NOVEL and THE WAY SOME PEOPLE LIVE and the listing of stories in the Knopf THE STORIES OF JOHN CHEEVER.
What we do not have is the names and publishers of the various collections other than those (and our listing for SOME PEOPLE ... and THE WAY SOME PEOPLE LIVE does not include the names of the stories collected therein.)
I've just discovered a copy of THE WORLD OF APPLES on my shelf and include a Xerox of the table of contents.
To the best of my knowledge we never sold a single story of John Cheever. I think that you and Ben are going to have to do a search of the collections in John's library, compare the table of contents especially with the Knopf volume and after eliminating the stories collected, see what is left.
If there is any way that I can be of help to you, please let me know.
Enclosures. P.S. Please return greetings to Jordan Miller.
She enclosed the contents pages of some Cheever short story collections.
To my surprise, things seemed to be moving along smoothly. On July 28, Franklin, Ben, and their mutual friend Tom Glazer met for lunch at Chez Vong, a Chinese restaurant on East 46th Street. The meeting was cordial. Ben said that his mother liked the idea of the book, and so did he. Tom Glazer liked it, too, but he wondered, since Franklin represented Princeton University Press, why Franklin didn't want to give the book to Princeton.
Franklin responded that he was representing Academy Chicago in this and that in any case the book was too commercial for a university press. He said that he had heard that the 1978 Knopf collection of Cheever stories had sold about 125,000 copies.
Ben said it was closer to 118,000.
"If we could sell half that number," Franklin said, "I would be pleased."
Ben said a quarter of that number would be fine.
The question of an introduction came up. The writer most often thought of in connection with Cheever was John Updike. Franklin said that he deeply admired Updike's work, but he did not think Updike would be a good choice to write an introduction because he had already written so much about Cheever. Ben agreed with Franklin, who went on to say that he thought either John le Carre or Raymond Carver might be a good choice. Franklin had once sent Le Carre a galley of Father George Hunt's critical study of Cheever's work; Le Carre had responded that the Hunt book was "hard work" and "a bit forbidding" but that he was willing to put his name to anything that might secure Cheever a wider readership: "for example a reissue of Cheever's work." Ben said he thought Le Carre might be a good bet.
Raymond Carver, Franklin said, had written a story called "The Train" that he had dedicated to Cheever because its protagonist was taken from Cheever's story "The 5:48." Carver thus obviously admired Cheever's work, and an introduction by him might, Franklin thought, bring younger readers to Cheever. Ben said that was a good idea.
Franklin asked Ben whether he thought the Letters and the short story collection should appear in the same season. Ben said he didn't know. He thought the Letters would be published in late fall 1988 or early spring 1989, but he said he would have to ask Allen Peacock, his editor at Simon & Schuster, whether it mattered if both books came out in the same season. Franklin reminded Ben that Scott Donaldson's biography of Cheever was scheduled for 1988; its publication had been delayed by the Cheevers' objections to it. Ben said the Donaldson book wasn't worth consideration.
The conversation ranged over books of military history, in which Franklin and Ben shared an interest, and Ben's new house in Pocantico Hills, where Franklin's aunt had lived on Ben's block. Franklin gave Ben a current Academy Chicago catalog and copies of feature stories about Academy from the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor so that Ben would know what kind of books Academy published. The Monitor article put emphasis on our mysteries. Ben told Franklin to have Academy send his mother a contract or "an option letter."
Franklin picked up the tab for lunch. He told Ben it was the least Academy could do.