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Edward William Bok (1863–1930). The Americanization of Edward Bok. 1921.


Last Years in New York

EDWARD BOK’S lines were now to follow those of advertising for several years. He was responsible for securing the advertisements for The Book Buyer and The Presbyterian Review. While the former was, frankly, a house-organ, its editorial contents had so broadened as to make the periodical of general interest to booklovers, and with the subscribers constituting the valuable list of Scribner book-buyers, other publishers were eager to fish in the Scribner pond.With The Presbyterian Review, the condition was different. A magazine issued quarterly naturally lacks the continuity desired by the advertiser; the scope of the magazine was limited, and so was the circulation. It was a difficult magazine to “sell” to the advertiser, and Bok’s salesmanship was taxed to the utmost. Although all that the publishers asked was that the expense of getting out the periodical be met, with its two hundred and odd pages even this was difficult. It was not an attractive proposition.The most interesting feature of the magazine to Bok appeared to be the method of editing. It was ostensibly edited by a board, but, practically, by Professor Francis L. Patton, D.D., of Princeton Theological Seminary (afterward president of Princeton University), and Doctor Charles A. Briggs, of Union Theological Seminary. The views of these two theologians differed rather widely, and when, upon several occasions, they met in Bok’s office, on bringing in their different articles to go into the magazine, lively discussions ensued. Bok did not often get the drift of these discussions, but he was intensely interested in listening to the diverse views of the two theologians.One day the question of heresy came up between the two men, and during a pause in the discussion, Bok, looking for light, turned to Doctor Briggs and asked: “Doctor, what really is heresy?”Doctor Briggs, taken off his guard for a moment, looked blankly at his young questioner, and repeated: “What is heresy?”“Yes,” repeated Bok, “just what is heresy, Doctor?”“That’s right,” interjected Doctor Patton, with a twinkle in his eyes, “what is heresy, Briggs?”“Would you be willing to write it down for me?” asked Bok, fearful that he should not remember Doctor Briggs’s definition even if he were told.And Doctor Briggs wrote:
  • Heresy is anything in doctrine or practice that departs from the mind of the Church as officially defined.
  • “Let me see,” asked Doctor Patton, and when he read it, he muttered: “Humph, pretty broad, pretty broad.”“Well,” answered the nettled Doctor Briggs, “perhaps you can give a less broad definition, Patton.”“No, no,” answered the Princeton theologian, as the slightest wink came from the eye nearest Bok, “I wouldn’t attempt it for a moment. Too much for me.”On another occasion, as the two were busy in their discussion of some article to be inserted in the magazine, Bok listening with all his might, Doctor Patton, suddenly turning to the young listener, asked, in the midst of the argument: “Whom are the Giants going to play this afternoon, Bok?”Doctor Briggs’s face was a study. For a moment the drift of the question was an enigma to him: then realizing that an important theological discussion had been interrupted by a trivial baseball question, he gathered up his papers and stamped violently out of the office. Doctor Patton made no comment, but, with a smile, he asked Bok: “Johnnie Ward going to play to-day, do you know? Thought I might ask Mr. Scribner if you could go up to the game this afternoon.”It is unnecessary to say to which of the two men Bok was the more attracted, and when it came, each quarter, to figuring how many articles could go into the Review without exceeding the cost limit fixed by the house, it was always a puzzle to Doctor Briggs why the majority of the articles left out were invariably those that he had brought in, while many of those which Doctor Patton handed in somehow found their place, upon the final assembling, among the contents.“Your articles are so long,” Bok would explain.“Long?” Doctor Briggs would echo. “You don’t measure theological discussions by the yardstick, young man.”“Perhaps not,” the young assembler would maintain.But we have to do some measuring here by the composition-stick, just the same.”And the Union Seminary theologian was never able successfully, to vault that hurdle!From his boyhood days (up to the present writing) Bok was a pronounced baseball “fan,” and so Doctor Patton appealed to a warm place in the young man’s heart when he asked him the questions about the New York baseball team. There was, too, a baseball team among the Scribner young men of which Bok was a part. This team played, each Saturday afternoon, a team from another publishing house, and for two seasons it was unbeatable. Not only was this baseball aggregation close to the hearts of the Scribner employees, but, in an important game, the junior member of the firm played on it and the senior member was a spectator. Frank N. Doubleday played on first base; William D. Moffat, later of Moffat, Yard & Company, and now editor of The Mentor, was behind the bat; Bok pitched; Ernest Dressel North, the present authority on rare editions of books, was in the field, as were also Ray Safford, now a director in the Scribner corporation, and Owen W. Brewer, at present a prominent figure in Chicago’s book world. It was a happy group, all closely banded together in their business interests and in their human relations as well.With Scribner’s Magazine now in the periodical field, Bok would be asked on his trips to the publishing houses to have an eye open for advertisements for that periodical as well. Hence his education in the solicitation of advertisements became general, and gave him a sympathetic understanding of the problems of the advertising solicitor which was to stand him in good stead when, in his later experience, he was called upon to view the business problems of a magazine from the editor’s position. His knowledge of the manufacture of the two magazines in his charge was likewise educative, as was the fascinating study of typography which always had, and has today, a wonderful attraction for him.It was, however, in connection with the advertising of the general books of the house, and in his relations with their authors, that Bok found his greatest interest. It was for him to find the best manner in which to introduce to the public the books issued by the house, and the general study of the psychology of publicity which this called for attracted Bok greatly.Bok was now asked to advertise a novel published by the Scribners which, when it was issued, and for years afterward, was pointed to as a proof of the notion that a famous name was all that was necessary to ensure the acceptance of a manuscript by even a leading publishing house. The facts in the case were that this manuscript was handed in one morning by a friend of the house with the remark that he submitted it at the suggestion of the author, who did not desire that his identity should be known until after the manuscript had been read and passed upon by the house. It was explained that the writer was not a famous author; in fact, he had never written anything before; this was his first book of any sort; he merely wanted to “try his wings.” The manuscript was read in due time by the Scribner readers, and the mutual friend was advised that the house would be glad to publish the novel, and was ready to execute and send a contract to the author if the firm knew in whose name the agreement should be made. Then came the first intimation of the identity of the author: the friend wrote that if the publishers would look in the right-hand corner of the first page of the manuscript they would find there the author’s name. Search finally revealed an asterisk. The author of the novel (Valentino) was William Waldorf Astor.Although the Scribners did not publish Mark Twain’s books, the humorist was a frequent visitor to the retail store, and occasionally he would wander back to the publishing department located at the rear of the store, which was then at 743 Broadway.Smoking was not permitted in the Scribner offices, and, of course, Mark Twain was always smoking. He generally smoked a granulated tobacco which he kept in a long check bag made of silk and rubber. When he sauntered to the back of the Scribner store, he would generally knock the residue from the bowl of the pipe, take out the stem, place it in his vest pocket, like a pencil, and drop the bowl into the bag containing the granulated tobacco. When he wanted to smoke again (which was usually five minutes later) he would fish out the bowl, now automatically filled with tobacco, insert the stem, and strike a light. One afternoon as he wandered into Bok’s office, he was just putting his pipe away. The pipe, of the corncob variety, was very aged and black. Bok asked him whether it was the only pipe he had.“Oh, no,” Mark answered, “I have several. But they’re all like this. I never smoke a new corncob pipe. A new pipe irritates the throat. No corncob pipe is fit for anything until it has been used at least a fortnight.”“How do you break in a pipe, then?” asked Bok.“That’s the trick,” answered Mark Twain. “I get a cheap man—a man who doesn’t amount to much, anyhow: who would be as well, or better, dead—and pay him a dollar to break in the pipe for me. I get him to smoke the pipe for a couple of weeks, then put in a new stem, and continue operations as long as the pipe holds together.”Bok’s newspaper syndicate work had brought him into contact with Fanny Davenport, then at the zenith of her career as an actress. Miss Davenport, or Mrs. Melbourne McDowell as she was in private life, had never written for print; but Bok, seeing that she had something to say about her art and the ability to say it, induced her to write for the newspapers through his syndicate. The actress was overjoyed to have revealed to her a hitherto unsuspected gift; Bok published her articles successfully, and gave her a publicity that her press agent had never dreamed of. Miss Davenport became interested in the young publisher, and after watching the methods which he employed in successfully publishing her writings, decided to try to obtain his services as her assistant manager. She broached the subject, offered him a five years’ contract for forty weeks’ service, with a minimum of fifteen weeks each year to spend in or near New York, at a salary, for the first year, of three thousand dollars, increasing annually until the fifth year, when he was to receive sixty-four hundred dollars.Bok was attracted to the work: he had never seen the United States, was anxious to do so, and looked upon the chance as a good opportunity. Miss Davenport had the contract made out, executed it, and then, in high glee, Bok took it home to show it to his mother. He had reckoned without question upon her approval, only to meet with an immediate and decided negative to the proposition as a whole, general and specific. She argued that the theatrical business was not for him; and she saw ahead and pointed out so strongly the mistake he was making that he sought Miss Davenport the next day and told her of his mother’s stand. The actress suggested that she see the mother; she did, that day, and she came away from the interview a wiser if a sadder woman. Miss Davenport frankly told Bok that with such an instinctive objection as his mother seemed to have, he was right to follow her advice and the contract was not to be thought of.It is difficult to say whether this was or was not for Bok the turning-point which comes in the life of every young man. Where the venture into theatrical life would have led him no one can, of course, say. One thing is certain: Bok’s instinct and reason both failed him in this instance. He believes now that had his venture into the theatrical field been temporary or permanent, the experiment, either way, would have been disastrous.Looking back and viewing the theatrical profession even as it was in that day (of a much higher order than now), he is convinced he would never have been happy in it. He might have found this out in a year or more, after the novelty of travelling had worn off, and asked release from his contract; in that case he would have broken his line of progress in the publishing business. From whatever viewpoint he has looked back upon this, which he now believes to have been the crisis in his life, he is convinced that his mother’s instinct saved him from a grievous mistake.The Scribner house, in its foreign-book department, had imported some copies of Bourrienne’s Life of Napoleon, and a set had found its way to Bok’s desk for advertising purposes. He took the books home to glance them over, found himself interested, and sat up half the night to read them. Then he took the set to the editor of the New York Star, and suggested that such a book warranted a special review, and offered to leave the work for the literary editor.“You have read the books?” asked the editor.“Every word,” returned Bok.“Then, why don’t you write the review?” suggested the editor.This was a new thought to Bok. “Never wrote a review,” he said.“Try it,” answered the editor. “Write a column.”“A column wouldn’t scratch the surface of this book,” suggested the embryo reviewer.“Well, give it what it is worth,” returned the editor.Bok did. He wrote a page of the paper.“Too much, too much,” said the editor. “Heavens, man, we’ve got to get some news into this paper.”“Very well,” returned the reviewer. “Read it, and cut it where you like. That’s the way I see the book.”And next Sunday the review appeared, word for word, as Bok had written it. His first review had successfully passed!But Bok was really happiest in that part of his work which concerned itself with the writing of advertisements. The science of advertisement writing, which meant to him the capacity to say much in little space, appealed strongly. He found himself more honestly attracted to this than to the writing of his literary letter, his editorials, or his book reviewing, of which he was now doing a good deal. He determined to follow where his bent led; he studied the mechanics of unusual advertisements wherever he saw them; he eagerly sought a knowledge of typography and its best handling in an advertisement, and of the value and relation of illustrations to text. He perceived that his work along these lines seemed to give satisfaction to his employers, since they placed more of it in his hands to do; and he sought in every way to become proficient in the art.To publishers whose advertisements he secured for the periodicals in his charge, he made suggestions for the improvement of their announcements, and found his suggestions accepted. He early saw the value of white space as one of the most effective factors in advertising; but this was a difficult argument, he soon found, to convey successfully to others. A white space in an advertisement was to the average publisher something to fill up; Bok saw in it something to cherish for its effectiveness. But he never got very far with his idea: he could not convince (perhaps because he failed to express his ideas convincingly) his advertisers of what he felt and believed so strongly.An occasion came in which he was permitted to prove his contention. The Scribners had published Andrew Carnegie’s volume, Triumphant Democracy, and the author desired that some special advertising should be done in addition to that allowed by the appropriation made by the house. To Bok’s grateful ears came the injunction from the steel magnate: “Use plenty of white space.” In conjunction with Mr. Doubleday, Bok prepared and issued this extra advertising, and for once, at least, the wisdom of using white space was demonstrated. But it was only a flash in the pan. Publishers were unwilling to pay for “unused space,” as they termed it. Each book was a separate unit, others argued: it was not like advertising one article continuously in which money could be invested; and only a limited amount could be spent on a book which ran its course, even at its best, in a very short time.And, rightly or wrongly, book advertising has continued much along the same lines until the present day. In fact, in no department of manufacturing or selling activity has there been so little progress during the past fifty years as in bringing books to the notice of the public. In all other lines, the producer has brought his wares to the public, making it easier and still easier for it to obtain his goods, while the public, if it wants a book, must still seek the book instead of being sought by it.That there is a tremendous unsupplied book demand in this country there is no doubt: the wider distribution and easier access given to periodicals prove this point. Now and then there has been tried an unsupported or not well-thought-out plan for bringing books to a public not now reading them, but there seems little or no understanding of the fact that there lies an uncultivated field of tremendous promise to the publisher who will strike out on a new line and market his books, so that the public will not have to ferret out a book-store or wind through the maze of a department store. The American reading public is not the book-reading public that it should be or could be made to be; but the habit must be made easy for it to acquire. Books must be placed where the public can readily get at them. It will not, of its own volition, seek them. It did not do so with magazines; it will not do so with books.In the meanwhile, Bok’s literary letter had prospered until it was now published in some forty-five newspapers. One of these was the Philadelphia Times. In that paper, each week, the letter had been read by Mr. Cyrus H. K. Curtis, the owner and publisher of The Ladies’ Home Journal. Mr. Curtis had decided that he needed an editor for his magazine, in order to relieve his wife, who was then editing it, and he fixed upon the writer of Literary Leaves as his man. He came to New York, consulted Will Carleton, the poet, and found that while the letter was signed by William J. Bok, it was actually written by his brother who was with the Scribners. So he sought Bok out there.The publishing house had been advertising in the Philadelphia magazine, so that the visit of Mr. Curtis was not an occasion for surprise. Mr. Curtis told Bok he had read his literary letter in the Philadelphia Times, and suggested that perhaps he might write a similar department for The Ladies’ Home Journal. Bok saw no reason why he should not, and told Mr. Curtis so, and promised to send over a trial instalment. The Philadelphia publisher then deftly went on, explained editorial conditions in his magazine, and, recognizing the ethics of the occasion by not offering Bok another position while he was already occupying one, asked him if he knew the man for the place.“Are you talking at me or through me?” asked Bok.“Both,” replied Mr. Curtis.This was in April of 1889.Bok promised Mr. Curtis he would look over the field, and meanwhile he sent over to Philadelphia the promised trial “literary gossip” instalment. It pleased Mr. Curtis, who suggested a monthly department, to which Bok consented. He also turned over in his mind the wisdom of interrupting his line of progress with the Scribners, and in New York, and began to contemplate the possibilities in Philadelphia and the work there.He gathered a collection of domestic magazines then published, and looked them over to see what was already in the field. Then he began to study himself, his capacity for the work, and the possibility of finding it congenial. He realized that it was absolutely foreign to his Scribner work: that it meant a radical departure. But his work with his newspaper syndicate naturally occurred to him, and he studied it with a view of its adaptation to the field of the Philadelphia magazine.His next step was to take into his confidence two or three friends whose judgment he trusted and discuss the possible change. Without an exception, they advised against it. The periodical had no standing, they argued; Bok would be out of sympathy with its general atmosphere after his Scribner environment; he was now in the direct line of progress in New York publishing houses; and, to cap the climax, they each argued in turn, he would be buried in Philadelphia: New York was the centre, etc., etc.More than any other single argument, this last point destroyed Bok’s faith in the judgment of his friends. He had had experience enough to realize that a man could not be buried in any city, provided he had the ability to stand out from his fellow-men. He knew from his biographical reading that cream will rise to the surface anywhere, in Philadelphia as well as in New York: it all depended on whether the cream was there: it was up to the man. Had he within him that peculiar, subtle something that, for the want of a better phrase, we call the editorial instinct? That was all there was to it, and that decision had to be his and his alone!A business trip for the Scribners now calling him West Bok decided to stop at Philadelphia, have a talk with Mr. Curtis, and look over his business plant. He did this, and found Mr. Curtis even more desirous than before to have him consider the position. Bok’s instinct was strongly in favor of an acceptance. A natural impulse moved him, without reasoning, to action. Reasoning led only to a cautious mental state, and caution is a strong factor in the Dutch character. The longer he pursued a conscious process of reasoning, the farther he got from the position. But the instinct remained strong.On his way back from the West, he stopped in Philadelphia again to consult his friend, George W. Childs; and here he found the only person who was ready to encourage him to make the change.Bok now laid the matter before his mother, in whose feminine instinct he had supreme confidence. With her, he met with instant discouragement. But in subsequent talks he found that her opposition was based not upon the possibilities inherent in the position, but on a mother’s natural disinclination to be separated from one of her sons. In the case of Fanny Davenport’s offer the mother’s instinct was strong against the proposition itself. But in the present instance it was the mother’s love that was speaking; not her instinct or judgment.Bok now consulted his business associates, and, to a man, they discouraged the step, but almost invariably upon the argument that it was suicidal to leave New York. He had now a glimpse of the truth that there is no man so provincially narrow as the untravelled New Yorker who believes in his heart that the sun rises in the East River and sets in the North River.He realized more keenly than ever before that the decision rested with him alone. On September 1, 1889, Bok wrote to Mr. Curtis, accepting the position in Philadelphia; and on October 13 following he left the Scribners, where he had been so fortunate and so happy, and, after a week’s vacation, followed where his instinct so strongly led, but where his reason wavered.On October 20, 1889, Edward Bok became the editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal.