Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Very Model of a Modern Major Author I

Olaudah Equiano, aka Gustavus Vassa

People are always talking about how the publishing world has changed, with authors in particular bemoaning how much better it was in The Old Days. Which is true, especially when it comes to editing and proofreading (my pet peeve).

And yet some things are very much the same.

As illustration, please allow me to introduce two outstandingly successful authors, from the 18th and 19th century respectively, who practiced--nay, invented--the basic tenets of Book Promotion 101.

First, I give you former enslaved African turned Englishman Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797). In 1789, after years as a globetrotting seaman, he became a bestselling author with his abolitionist autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African. Written by Himself.

Scholar Brycchan Carey notes, in his Olaudah Equiano: A Critical Biography, that the Interesting Narrative was "one of over a hundred books to appear that year on the subject of slavery." That's hefty competition, particularly when you consider that there were exponentially fewer books published then, with exponentially fewer people able to read--much less buy--them. Plus there was a bit of distraction later that year in the way of bloody news from France.

But Equiano, who had saved to purchase his freedom, was a savvy, literate businessman. He wrote his own book, unlike other slave narrators, whose stories were transcribed and published by whites (who probably took a lion's share of the profits).

Ye modern authors, take notes on how Equiano (Vassa was his cruelly ironic slave name) built his name as a writer, and published and promoted his book.

Per a Feb 2006 Washington Post review of Vincent Carretta's EQUIANO, THE AFRICAN: Biography of a Self-Made Man by Mary Frances Berry:
Taking advantage of 18th-century newspapers' demands for copy, Vassa began his writing career by publishing letters and book reviews and became acquainted with leading anti-slave-trade advocates of the day....

In 1788, Vassa began soliciting buyers for his forthcoming book, identifying himself publicly for the first time as Olaudah Equiano. He made the strategic decision to self-publish and organized a subscribers' list. Unusual for the period, he required partial payment in advance. He also kept and registered the copyright. Advertisements for the two-volume edition appeared in May 1789, just when debates over the slave trade, which had been overshadowed by the illness of King George III, regained prominence.

The cover -- with a portrait of Vassa by William Denton, a reputable painter -- depicted him not as a savage but dressed as an English gentleman....By looking directly out at readers, Equiano, their moral equal if not their superior, gives an impression of a man of the world, at ease in his own skin....

Vassa traveled throughout Britain promoting the book and the abolition cause. International booksellers also informed American readers. He became the African spokesman in debates on the slave trade. Reviews were generally favorable, and sales grew.

Over the next few years, through nine editions of the book, newspaper printers and publishers, the royal family and socially and politically prominent figures in the trades and the arts all eagerly became subscribers.... Since Vassa was his own publisher, he enjoyed complete control over what went into subsequent editions. His marriage to an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, and the birth of their two daughters, Ann Mary and Joanna, extended the story of his success.

As his own publisher, Vassa kept the book's entire and considerable profit. By February 1792 [two months before he married--I wonder what sort of dowry his wife brought?], he was able to lend today's equivalent of $35,000 and could afford to lose it when the debtor defaulted. He also routinely subscribed to antislavery writings of other authors.
Per Carey (emphasis mine):
He managed to convince many very important people to pay in advance for his book, a list which starts with the Prince of Wales and includes no less than eight dukes. Equiano's book is different in another way too. Equiano did not just publish the book and leave it to fend for itself. Instead, he vigorously promoted it by going on lecture tours around England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and by promoting his book he was also promoting the idea of abolition of slavery. Indeed, it was local abolition committees who arranged the lectures and readings at which he was present....
Equiano died a famous and wealthy man in 1797, though his marital success story ended with him widowed with two little children. Ann Mary died shortly after he did. Joanna, just two when she was orphaned, lived to inherit "a substantial estate of £950 from her father" (about £100,000 today) when she came of age in 1816.

There's a sad and interesting tale: What would life have been like for a mixed-race orphan girl of independent means growing up in England during the Napoleonic wars? Thackeray's Vanity Fair, set during that era, mocks Miss Swartz, a "woolly-headed" mulatto heiress from St. Kitts. (I wonder whether Joanna read Jane Austen...)

1 comment:

Carleen Brice said...

The more things change....This was fascinating, Bella. Thanks for sharing!