The Library of America: Where the 19th Century Meets the 21st
19th century poetry offered on a 21st century venue.
I have come to expect all types of goods to be advertised on the internet. Occasionally, one might even see something sort of book related, such as an electronic reader or some phenomenally popular new series. What I wasn't prepared for was the advertisement I saw recently while checking out the weather forecast. There it was – a collection of 19th century poetry, featuring Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and “more.” Is there really a sufficient market for such classic literature to justify advertising on the internet? What's more, these weren't electronic versions of these texts or some other sort of 21st century technology. These were books – paper and ink, with old-fashioned hard covers.
In the days ahead, I discovered similar ads for collections of works by Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper. Who could be selling new print editions of these old classics to a mass-market audience today? The answer is... The Library of America. The Library of America is a surprising organization, a nonprofit publisher that has been operating somewhat below the radar for over three decades. It was formed in 1979 by various scholars and literary critics who were concerned about the availability of the works of America's greatest writers. Of course, those were the days before the availability of massive quantities of old books online, or electronic and online copies of books, generally offered free if published before 1923. Still, though circumstances have changed since 1979, the work of the Library of America goes on. Their role, somewhere between purveyor of text and publisher of fine editions, continues to fill the shelves of both longtime loyal followers and new clients, some of whom discovered the Library when checking out the day's weather.
The founders of the Library originally secured their funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation. In 1982, their first book was published. Now, 225 titles later, the Library has an active publishing schedule set for next year. We asked Brian McCarthy, Associate Publisher of the Library of America, to tell us a bit more about the Library and its work, and how it reaches people in the second decade of the 21st century.
What makes the Library of America very different from any other publishers we have known is the multitude of roles they seek to fill. It started from a basic preservation role, that of preserving access to the great American literature of the past for today's generations. However, other roles include making this classic literature available at an affordable price, creating fine, collectible quality editions of these works, and selecting the most authoritative versions of these books to publish. Mr. McCarthy explained the multifaceted mission by noting, “From the beginning, our mission has always been about more than availability. It has been about presenting America’s best and most significant writing in the most authoritative possible texts and in a durable, affordable, aesthetically pleasing, and convenient format.” He then pointed out, “In addition, each and every item in a Library of America volume comes from the most reliable, authoritative source for that particular selection. Choosing an authoritative text involves studying the textual history of each work to determine which of its various versions is the most appropriate to reprint.”
Curating works at the Library of America is not limited to selecting the most accurate text among competing editions. It can also lead to compilations that are original works. Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1973, is a collection of articles, features, columns, and book excerpts gathered together “to present a compelling as-it-happened panorama of that turbulent era.” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859 – 1865, published “555 letters, speeches, messages, proclamations, orders, memoranda, drafts, and fragments that together form a record of the Civil War as experienced by its most central figure.” Mr. McCarthy points out, “while a diligent researcher might locate a particular letter or speech on the Internet, there is no equivalent digital selection of Lincoln’s most essential writings from the war years.”
Purchases from the Library also reflect the varying missions behind their publishing. Mr. McCarthy explains, “Our readers use books for many reasons: as readers, as collectors, as scholars, as students. Many buy our books because they want to own a permanent collection of a favorite author; others buy our books for the quality of the bindings and their appearance in their personal libraries. Many customers might buy only one title or boxed set, but we have several thousand customers who own virtually all 225 titles in the series.”
Of those 225 titles, which were the biggest sellers? The top seller goes to Thomas Jefferson: Writings, with sales of 217,518 copies. It is followed by Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings; Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1859-1865; Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1832-1858; and Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose. Each of these was originally published in the 1980s, but that does not imply that sales were greater years ago. These works have been available for going on three decades, so their sales totals are naturally higher than for more recently published works.
The Library of America: Where the 19th Century Meets the 21st
The Library of America offers spectacular introductory offers.
For 2012, Mr. McCarthy reports a very active printing schedule. “We will publish 25 titles in 2012, ranging from volumes collecting the works of writers new to the main LOA series, including the historian Barbara W. Tuchman, noir novelist David Goodis, and Little House author Laura Ingalls Wilder, to new volumes in on-going multi-volume editions of the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, and Jack Kerouac, to special out-of-series publications, including centennial editions of two classics by Edgar Rice Burroughs and an unprecedented collection of the writings of New York artist Joe Brainard. Criteria for selection are literary merit and historical significance. We endeavor to offer a balanced list each year in terms of kinds of writing, historical periods represented, and potential audience, and we are always interested in broadening readers’ understanding of what is meant by 'great American writing.'”
Nevertheless, even the most worthy of endeavors has to deal with economic realities, and as we know, these are particularly difficult times for booksellers. How is the Library of America faring during these trying times? Mr. McCarthy responded, “While The LOA has by no means been immune to larger forces affecting publishing and the economy as a whole, sales have been reasonably steady, with increased sales online more or less off-setting declining sales through our traditional subscription service. We remain very optimistic.” He also noted that the Library will be releasing its first electronic book shortly, and while not all of its books will be available in this format, “it will be an important part of our program moving forward.” Mr. McCarthy did note that sales receipts do not cover the full cost of research, editorial work, royalties and such expenses involved in producing these fine editions, their income being supplemented by donations from individuals and foundations.
And what, then, of where we started, from that advertisement I saw next to an online weather forecast? Does that really work to sell classic American literature? The answer is yes. The Library did not specifically run the ad there. It was part of a campaign placed through Google, using audience metrics they have figured out. And, I might add, Google must have some good formulas since they placed the Library of America ad in front of a writer for the Americana Exchange. No wonder online advertising has become a major way the Library of America reaches new customers.
To visit the Library of America online, just click the following link: www.loa.org.
The Library of America also has some spectacular introductory offers that you may want to see. Just click here: www.loa.org/LOA-offers.