Mark Twain’s GetQuick Schemes

Like most of us, Mark Twain hated writing checks to other people. But there were times when he happily paid out large sums. Issuing a check for $200,000 drawn on the United States Bank of New York on February 27, 1886, for example, made him almost giddy. The check was made out to Julia Dent Grant, the widow of Ulysses S. Grant, the former president of the United States and commanding general of the Union Army, who had died of cancer the summer before, just after completing his remembrances of the Civil War. That payment represented the first profits from sales of volume one of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, published only a few months earlier by Charles L. Webster and Company, a start-up publishing house Twain had established two years before. He had installed a nephew, Charles “Charley” Webster, as its business manager. Webster got his name on the letterhead and a salary, but that’s about all he got out of the position, besides aggravation. Twain made all the business and financial decisions, except when he didn’t feel like it.
Twain would have been pleased to have published Grant’s memoir even if it had not broken all American publishing records for sheer profitability. Just landing the contract had required Twain to persuade General Grant to break a handshake deal with another publisher. The other publisher had offered Grant a 10 percent royalty. Twain countered by offering a royalty share unheard of then, or since: 75 percent. The other publisher offered no advance against royalties. Twain said he would pay $25,000 upfront.