28 January 2010

A Heavy Contract for Baum and Denslow

David Loiterstein of Readex kindly called my attention to this item from the Helena Independent, dated 25 June 1900. It appears to be based on a press release from the Geo. M. Hill Company, a small Chicago publisher:

A Heavy Contract

Chicago, June 24.—What is said to be the most important contract of the kind ever made west of the Mississippi river was executed here last night. By its terms a local publishing company secures for five years the exclusive publication of the joint productions of L. Frank Baum and W. W. Denslow, respectively author and illustrator of “Father Goose, His Book” and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Messrs. Baum and Denslow are to produce at least one book a year and it is said that they are guaranteed royalties of $10,000 each annually.
The same item ran in other Midwest papers around the same time, reflecting regional pride.

I thumbed through Michael Patrick Hearn’s Annotated Wizard of Oz and Katharine M. Rogers’s L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, and didn’t see a mention of this contract. This sort of newspaper report was easily overlooked before Readex’s searchable database. And it sheds some doubt on a story both those books retell, based on many accounts from the Baum family going back to 1908.

According to that tale, Baum, after prodding from his wife Maud, went to Geo. M. Hill toward the end of 1900 and asked for an early payment of royalties in order to buy Christmas presents. He brought home the check without looking at it, and the couple was amazed to find that it was for thousands of dollars. Over $13,000, according to some versions, more like $3,000 if it was the same amount Denslow received about that time.

But this newspaper item indicates that Baum, Denslow, and Hill were already talking about $10,000 in annual royalties before the middle of that year. Even if that’s just a projection with some puffery for publicity’s sake, that suggests the Baums’ surprise was misplaced.

The item is also remarkable since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had been printed only about a month before, as The Annotated Wizard of Oz describes. The Bookseller magazine reported in June that Hill had ordered a second printing of 5,000 copies as the company prepared for the Chicago Book Fair in July. (Again, publishers’ announced print runs are often inflated for publicity.)

Thus, Hill made the multi-book offer to Baum and Denslow when they had produced one huge hit (Father Goose) and appeared to be on the verge of enjoying another—indeed a smart time for a publisher to sew up a successful author team.

Baum and Denslow produced only one more major project together, Dot and Tot in Merryland, published by Hill in 1901. They soon had a falling-out, and the company went bankrupt in 1902. So this “heavy contract” didn’t last. And evidently it didn’t survive in the Baum family lore.

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