Mary Abigail Dodge (1833–1896), known by the pen name Gail Hamilton, was hailed in a national newspaper after her death as “the most brilliant woman of her generation.” Author of numerous essays and more than 25 books on religion, politics, travel, rural life, and the rights of women, Hamilton also played a key role in the evolution of publishing when she sued her publisher, James T. Fields (of the house Ticknor & Fields), for underpaying her. With the issue of how writers are valued and paid still raging today, the legal battle waged by this writer is a reminder of how little things have changed.
At 23, Hamilton had an essay run in National Era, an abolitionist magazine edited by Gamaliel Bailey, best known as the editor of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She began to write regularly for him, and he invited her to move to Washington, D.C., to be governess for his children. While this arrangement would be considered inappropriate today, it afforded Hamilton opportunities to rub elbows with politicians and thought leaders that fed her writing. (Later in her career, however, she was a vocal critic of paternalist publishers.)
In her essays and books, Hamilton urged women not to conform to societal expectations and instead become what she called “androgynous,” by which she meant they should develop the side of themselves she felt most resembled men, giving up any tendency to remain ignorant of, or above, worldly, commercial dealings. She felt that women’s spiritual and artistic tendencies should be tamped down in favor of male decisiveness and firmer attitudes. She especially advised this for women writers, saying, “a certain prejudice against female writers ‘still lives.’ It is fine, subtle, impalpable, but real.”
Her assessment that women writers weren’t treated as equal to men was confirmed when she discovered that her publisher, whether by accident or design, had cheated her out of her royalties. Fields published Hamilton’s first book in 1862 and subsequently published seven more. Theirs was a friendly relationship until 1867, when Hamilton learned that most beginning authors received a 10% royalty, while she received only 6% and 7%. For her subsequent books, Fields had convinced her to accept 15¢ per copy. When they sold for $1.50 each, the arrangement was fair, but as the price of her books rose, her earnings didn’t.
Hamilton and Fields had no written contract, merely a congenial relationship that benefitted the publisher more than the author. When she approached him about the discrepancy, instead of acknowledging the error, he dismissed her complaint, calling her “aggressive” and “unwomanly.”
Hamilton pursued legal arbitration, gathering a sizable amount of data from other publishers and authors in an attempt to prove that the entire royalty system was arbitrary and capricious. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s widow shared that at the start of her husband’s career, he had received 15% from Fields but was later knocked down to 10%. Other authors received 20%, while Harriet Beecher Stowe received a full 50% of the profits from her highly successful books. It galled Hamilton that writers seemed grateful to accept whatever rates publishers chose for them.
Though she worked with a lawyer, Hamilton presented her own case in the hearing and petitioned for the 10% she had never received, plus an additional 7%, and legal expenses of $3,000. In their ruling, the arbitrators determined that neither party had intended to defraud the other—a decision that treated the two parties as equals, when clearly they were not.
Hamilton was awarded only $1,250, not even half of her legal costs. Though defeated in court, she continued to publish with other houses, and in 1870, she self-published a novel that contained a thinly veiled account of her legal fight titled A Battle of the Books. It received mixed reviews, including some scathing ones, and although it sold moderately well, she still lost money on it.
But the literary community took notice, and the veneer of gentlemen publishers was forever tarnished. Hamilton successfully warned writers to be wary of the supposed benevolence of the gentlemen’s business. Her case made it obvious that authors assigned too much importance to publishers’ reputations and not enough to their own financial interests.
In Hamilton’s opinion, a writer’s relationship to his or her publisher was too much like that of a submissive wife in a traditional marriage. An independent, self-defined woman, she refused any such constraining roles. Her outspoken, principled stand on this matter still offers an important reminder and model for writers today.
Virginia Pye is the author of The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann (Regal House, Oct.)