Chicago Examiner, April 4, 1918
HOW I BECAME AN AUTHOR
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
How did I become an author? The answer to that question depends, to a considerable extent, upon the askee. For example, should you ask some of the book reviewers how I became one they would tell you that I hadn’t. One of them said that my books were not books at all, and he wasted a perfectly good column in the NATION explaining how rotten they are. May be he is right; may be they are not books at all; but I like them—I think they are bully stories—and so do several million other low-brows.
In telling how I became an author I should be able to expatiate on the fact that since earliest infancy I had been an inimitable story-teller, and that I took to writing professionally before leaving kindergarten. As a matter of fact I never could tell a story and can not now. I can write a story on a typewriter; or what you and I think is a story; but I couldn’t tell one, and I was thirty five years old before I wrote my first.
My career as a fiction writer hinged on the decision of Tom Metcalf, then editor of The All-Story Magazine. I sent him about half the manuscript of A Princess of Mars, asking that he let me know if he thought it worth while completing the yarn. He said he did. If he had said no my first story would yet have been unwritten.
I had started in a new business a few months before I commenced A Princess of Mars. We advertised in a number of magazines and after our advertisements were checked I sometimes took the magazines home to read. There were several all-fiction publications among them—some that I had never before seen—and so I read some of the stories. I remember thinking that if other people got money for writing such stuff I might, too, for I was sure I could write stories just as rotten as theirs. Later on I found that I could; but that came when my business venture went the way of ninety-five percent of all other new enterprises and I was left without money, with out a job and with a wife and two babies. Then I recalled the stories I had read in the all-fiction magazines and surreptitiously, very surreptitiously, I started A Princess of Mars. I was very much ashamed of my now vocation and until the story was nearly half completed I told no one about it, and then only my wife. It seemed a foolish thing for a full grown man to be doing—much on a par with dressing myself in a boy scout suit and running away from home to fight Indians. I was very new. I didn’t know a single writer, editor or publisher and had an idea that most of them were long haired freaks who resided in attics. I have since discovered that the regular ones are quite human. In all this I ??believe I was fortunate as it gave me the mental attitude which has been largely responsible for what success I have had—it has prevented me taking either my work or myself seriously.
Luck has been with me from the first moment that I started writing. Formerly I didn’t take much stock in luck; but I am now convinced that it plays a large part in the acceptance or rejection of manuscript. You are lucky if the editor has had a good dinner just prior to reading your latest story and you are unlucky if he has indigestion. I have written and sold thirty-one novels and novelettes. In all but two instances where any of these were rejected by an editor I have later resold them at an advanced rate—sometimes to the very magazine that first refused them. On the other hand, and I get this from an experienced magazine editor, there is every reason to believe that there are a greater number of better manuscripts rejected every year than are accepted.
Tarzan of the Apes was my third story and after that things came easier still. At home Tarzan is vulgarly known as our meal ticket. Whenever the sheriff gains on me and is about to levy on my coat-tails I draw my trusty Underwood and dash off another Tarzan novel.
Some day, when I get to be a regular author, I’ll tell you how I did it.
A few years earlier Burroughs wrote this for the Author’s Bulletin.
Author’s League, “The Bulletin”, April 1915
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The article on syndication by “X” in the March BULLETIN deals so interestingly with a subject of vital importance to writers that it should awaken many to the possibilities for profit which they are throwing away — and worse than throwing away — when they permit the second serial rights to their manuscripts to pass out of their hands without receiving them, in real money, what they are worth.
I am very recent in the writing game, and so, like most recent people in any field, feel fully qualified to spill advice promiscuously among my betters.
But the very fact of my newness is the strongest argument I have in favor of my propaganda — that writers never part with any of their rights except for value received. Though my literary fontanelle is scarce closed, and my name a household word only in my own home, I am making more real money out of the second serial rights to my stories than some famous authors whose work is of infinitely greater value than mine.
They relinquish their second serial rights either to magazine or book publisher. I retain mine in all events. Their publishers either trade these rights for newspaper advertising or vend them at ridiculously low cash figures. I sell mine for cash, or not at all. In the latter event I am still better off than they, since I am not permitting my stuff to keep down the price which others might get were it not for the mass of publisher-owned rights which are sold for anything that they will bring.
I sold three stories to magazines before I discovered that second serial rights had a value. From then I have retained these rights and the fourth story has already brought in $729 in cash and is still selling. I have received as high as $300 for the newspaper rights to a story for a single city. I have repeatedly sold to publishers who maintain a syndicating bureau of their own without the slightest demur on their part as to the retention of my second serial rights by me. I have sold for use in a single city to a newspaper that maintains a syndicating service covering many cities.
It is my belief, and my experience corroborates it, that no book or magazine publisher will permit the question of the ownership of the second serial rights to any manuscript to stand in the way of their acquisition of the first serial rights, if they want them. If they don’t want the first serial rights, it is certain that the second will prove no inducement.
Now here is my argument: If an unknown writer of very ordinary fiction can turn his second serial rights into money for himself in the face of the competition engendered by the trading of second serial rights, owned by publishers, for advertising, and the low prices accepted by magazine syndicating bureaus, then every writer should be able to get something, sometime, for some of the second serial rights he is now giving away.
Further, and of still greater importance: if no writer ever again parted with these rights except for a fair cash remuneration there would be a better market for us al, and infinitely better prices.
I wish that the League might suggest a plan whereby we should all work together to this end, for if a number of us could combine to do our own syndicating we could accomplish more at a smaller expense than by individually marketing our own wares, or by turning the work over to an agent.
My idea in the suggestion of such a plan is not that we ask unfair prices for our work, but that we may receive fair prices, all of us, and keep to ourselves more of the fruits of our labors.
The Secretary of the League will be glad to put in touch with the writer any other authors who may simplify their interest in this plan.
And here’s an interesting “War Years” Picture of ERB.