- Mark Twain and "the Pope's Book"The Charles Webster Company's Subscription Publication of the Life of Leo XIII
"The Pope's canvassing-book would sell a Choctaw Bible, it is so handsome. … That book is going to go, sure."—Mark Twain, 18871
"The Pope's book is ours," Mark Twain wrote his wife Olivia in April 1886, "& we'll sell a fleet load of copies." Twain encouraged Olivia Clemens to order the "costly sofa" she had been longing for: "You can order 1000 such sofas now, if you want to—the future bank account will foot the bill and never miss it."2 Getting the rights to "the Pope's book," Father Bernard O'Reilly's biography of Pope Leo XIII, pontiff from 1878 to 1903, seemed a coup, and Twain bragged of it to many, including his Congregational pastor, Joe Twichell, who wrote in his diary, "The issue of this book will be the greatest event in the way of book publishing that ever occurred; and it seems certain, M. T. will make a vast amount of money by it."3 Twain himself confided to a business partner during negotiations for the book: "It's a clear $100,000."4 Twain believed even the enormous success of the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (1885) "seemed likely to dwindle in importance by the side of The Life of Pope Leo XIII," as his biographer Paine has reported.5 Twain's publishing company contracted with the Vatican for the rights to the biography of the pope even as the second volume of Ulysses S. Grant's very successful Memoirs was in preparation.
"I am Webster & Co., myself, substantially," Twain declared in 1885, and as the majority shareholder of the Charles Webster Publishing Company, Twain was closely involved with the acquisition, publication, and marketing of O'Reilly's Life of Leo XIII as a subscription book.6 O'Reilly's biography of the Pope was endorsed and based on materials provided by the Vatican and was based on materials provided by the Vatican. For those reasons, the Webster Company had to secure contracts both with O'Reilly [End Page 226] and with the See of Rome, a delicate process in which Twain was intimately involved. Over the course of seven years, from 1886 through 1894, Twain's hopes for those great profits waxed and waned, but in the end, the pope's book contributed to the bankruptcy of the Charles Webster Company and perhaps even to the collapse of subscription publication. In response to his earlier prognostication that Twain would earn "vast amounts of money" by publishing the pope's book, Reverend Twichell returned to his diary later and added the remark: "(P.S.—Proved quite otherwise in the event.)"7 The failure of the pope's book has melted into the background of Twain's many disastrous investments, most notably his involvement with the Paige Typesetter, yet one could argue that Twain's failure as publisher to the pope was more significant than his other failed investments, not because it lost more money, but because the investment had been more than financial: it had been intellectual and even spiritual. The collapse of "the greatest event in the way of book publishing that ever occurred" contributed to the demise of a once-mighty publisher and to Twain's bankruptcy, and fundamentally changed the relation of subscription book publishers and their book agents.8
The failure of O'Reilly's book resulted from the collision of Twain's unbounded self-confidence in his abilities as a publisher and his near total ignorance of Roman Catholicism. To sell the book, Twain was attempting to use a method of book selling some considered disreputable but which he adapted to put as many copies of his books in as many hands as possible: subscription publication. The marketing of a book by subscription involved identifying and deploying a vast network of book agents, who would travel most typically in rural areas, using a canvassing book to take orders. Such books typically provided sample chapters, illustrations, and other features designed to entice the customer. According to Lisa Lindell, "Subscription selling...