The dark side

Reader comment, hacks and flacks, and Mark Twain. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

There is a lot of news going on in the world right now: Covid-19 resurgence, for one, much as I wish it weren’t still so key. We’ll get to it all below.

But first, a reader signed up for the reader advisory group this week. And she joked that she’d been a journalist, but she’d now gone over to “the dark side”—marketing and public relations.

Now, for the record, I don’t think of it that way. And, I say this as someone who gets dozens of pitches from PR and marketing people every single day. They have their job to do, and I have mine.

But, it’s a common self-depracating joke among writers.

And, it provides a chance today for me to explore a story I was thinking about recently — probably my favorite example of someone who went back and forth between these kinds of vocations many times (journalism, “real” writing, and marketing).

It’s the story of Samuel Clemens, a/k/a Mark Twain, and his key influence on the Personal Memoirs of Ulyssess S. Grant, which were published 135 years ago this summer.

I quoted from the memoirs not long ago — the thing about Braxton Bragg, future Confederate general, who had served as a company commander and quartermaster on the same U.S. Army post, and who staged a bizarre, ongoing, written battle between himself and himself — playing both of his assigned roles.

Grant told the Braxton story, but it was Clemens (aka Twain; we’ll just call him that here) who made the memoir possible. Among his roles…

  • Objectively true: Twain acted as the publisher for Grant’s memoir. We’ll get to that in a second.

  • Underappreciated: Twain was a pure marketing genius, who figured out how to sell an insane number of books — which produced the author’s royalties that in turn allowed Grant’s wife and children to live comfortably after his death.

  • Disputed: Some critics say Twain might have actually written some of the book himself, especially given that Grant was close to death toward the ending stages of the writing process.

Everyone thinks they could write a memoir, because we’ve all had lives, but let me tell you: VERY DIFFICULT to get right. I’ve been working on one for a long time.

Yet, despite the fact that Grant couldn’t have read and been inspired by most of the most entertaining memoirs of all time — because they hadn’t been written yet — his is really quite readable.

Twain and Grant first met shortly after the Civil War, when just about everyone in the North—Twain included, about 13 years younger than Grant by the way—idolized Grant for having led the Union army to victory.

They became closer friends in the late 1870s, after Twain had become a celebrated author and Grant had served two terms as president. But by 1884, Grant was out of office, diagnosed with throat cancer, and nearly destitute.

In failing health, Grant was desperate to find a way to provide for his family before he passed. Twain rode to the rescue, offering “advantageous terms” for Grant to write his memoirs.

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant were finished just days before Grant died in 1885, and Twin figured out how to sell a massive number: 350,000 hardbound, two-volume editions.

That’s an amazing number even now, and it’s triply so considering the incredibly high price point Twain set, and the fact that there were only about one-sixth as many Americans then as now.

Twain’s well-executed plan included:

  • Hype: Twain orchestrated a campaign to get newspapers to write about Grant’s race against death to finish his book. Thus, almost everyone in the country knew it was coming.

  • Grass-roots sales. Twain put together a network of 10,000 sales agents, mostly Union army veterans, and sent them out as salesmen, wearing their old uniforms. They sold first to family and friends, and then engaged a broader audience of customers, still one-on-one.

  • Intimacy. These first first editions of Grant's memoirs contained what appeared to be a handwritten note from Grant himself, which made the whole project appear much more personal.

  • Pricing. Twain had to make a lot of money in order to meet the late general's objective of providing enough for his family while still turning a profit. So, he set an absurdly high cover price for the book: between $3.50 to $12 for each two-volume set, which works out to between roughly $100 and $317 in 2020 dollars.

Yet, it worked. Grant was gone, but Twain managed the book well enough that Grant’s wife, Julia, and his other heirs received about $450,000 in royalties (about $11.9 million today)—which was Grant’s entire goal from the affair.

Twain made a lot of money too, although he lost almost all of it later. (As this New York Times article shows--from 1894!-- Twain's publishing firm filed for bankruptcy just a few years after Grant's memoir was published.)

More famously, Twain lost the modern-day equivalent of millions on a publishing invention called the Paige compositor, which never really worked. Although he did recover financially, Twain was always a much better writer — and much better known, of course — than he was an entrepreneur and investor.

So. Go to the dark side, come back, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s really only the great stories that people remember.

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7 other things worth your time

  • I’ve barely left my home in nearly four months, and yet somehow as a nation, we’ve allowed the problem to get worse. The United States had a total of 36,358 new Covid-19 cases yesterday, its single-day high. (CNBC)

  • Covid-19 is also surging rapidly among young adults. This is largely in states where bars, stores and restaurants reopened. While the young people themselves might not be at high risk of death, they could spread the disease to others in higher risk categories. (Associated Press)

  • In a reversal from what was happening a few months ago, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which have made progress on slowing the spread of Covid-19, announced that visitors from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, where the spread is increasing, are required to quarantine for two weeks upon entering the state. Governor Cuomo of New York says they’ll stop cars with out-of-state plates. (NBC New York, Fox 5 NY)

  • Dozens of Secret Service agents and officers who went to Tulsa for the rally last weekend have been ordered to self-quarantine for two weeks, since two of the colleagues they were working with tested positive. (NYT via Stamford Advocate)

  • How the whole notion of wearing a mask became a political issue. (Axios)

  • “Canada is awesome!” Shopify and other Canadian tech companies are trying to lure foreign tech workers who might have gone to the United States, except that President Trump banned H1B visas and other immigrant work permits through the end of the year. (Financial Post)

  • Elsewhere in Washington: the U.S. Senate approved the 200th judge appointed by President Trump since his inauguration in 2017, including all current appeals court vacancies. This makes him the seventh most prolific judge-appointing president of all time, and second behind President Carter among first-term presidents. (Fox News)

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