In the process of adding to the Miriam Colwell Collection three publisher’s copies of her typewritten book manuscripts, I was drawn in by the array of red pencil marks, cryptic editorial notations, official publisher’s time stamps and layout designs scattered across the pages of these novels. Created in 1945, 1946 and 1955, the thick stacks of loose sheets are yellowed with age, dented at the edges, and rich with the behind-the-scenes story of the process of bringing manuscript to book. Wind Off the Water, Day of the Trumpet and Young take place in the Maine Colwell knows and conveys well, and the text written in the dialect of the state’s Downeast environs contrasts provocatively with the red pencil marginalia in the language of editorial mark-up. Already I’m hooked and want to make sense of each and every authoritative notation.
A peek behind the publishing curtain such as this reminds me that we have not only such a wealth of product by our authors, but that we have valuable artifacts that bring to life their process for us as well. In addition to personal items such as letters and photographs that tell us about the author’s life and character, we are also keepers of many documents that can tell us about the various steps to publishing a book, play or other literary creation. Scribbled notes with germs of ideas, first/second/third drafts with edits, publishing contracts, design layouts, documents detailing royalties and other compensation, publicity and review clippings, and correspondence between author and agent, and author and editor all can add to our experience of a published work.
Over my next few blog posts, I’d like to dig into the Collection to pull out clues as to how various authors of different eras navigated the publishing process in all of its twists and turns. Exploring Colwell’s mid-twentieth century examples seems a great way to learn about the editing end of book production at that time.
Leafing through these three different manuscripts, I begin to understand that two are at the very first stage of the publishing process, “setting copies,” they seem to be called. Both look to be the earliest copies given by the author to the publisher for typesetting, raw with pencil-sketched imaginings of the front pages, marked lightly with a copy editor’s red pencil marks. A few of the Wind Off the Water pages bear an official date and time stamp of the Stratford Press copy department on their blank verso sides. Coming across such a stamp brings us right into the flow of the process; someone hand-marked this page at that stage before sending it on to the next step in production. Another artifact from the internal workings is a letter from Ballantine Books that accompanied the return of the “setting copy” of Young to Colwell. Mostly likely, this was a welcome signal to the author that things were moving forward.
Day of the Trumpet, on the other hand, is a printer’s copy of the manuscript. Atop the first page of this version is a large block of text stamped in red. It reads, “The Haddon Craftsmen/Scranton, PA./Printer’s Proof/Please return this set with your corrections marked thereon/Sep 11 1946.” From this I learn that Random House, the publisher in New York, sent this manuscript out to Haddon Craftsmen in Pennsylvania to be typeset and perhaps printed and bound. And similarly to Wind, some pages have been officially marked “received” on the backside with a time and date stamp, this time by the printing department. Again, by each of these stamps we are brought into immediate relationship with one moment in Day of the Trumpet’s journey to publication.
The printer’s copy of Trumpet is accompanied by beautifully typeset title, dedication, contents and “Final OK Sample” chapter pages. These show just how the pages will look in the end.
I notice that a number, 32909, has been stamped in red ink or handwritten on every one of the 370 or so sheets in the stack. At first I think that Colwell’s book has been given an ID so that if a page becomes separated from the pile in the busy publishing house they can tuck it safely back in where it belongs. But then I notice that one little title page sketch for Wind Off the Water also bears the number “32909.” So, is 32909 an ID number for Colwell? Or the manufacturer’s number for the publisher? Hard to tell.
What intrigues me most, however, are the sketches for the various pieces of front matter for each book – the title, contents, dedication and copyright pages. So many of these are hand-designed and carefully colored with hand-written instructions as to typeface, size, leading, and layout. Were these pages created by Colwell herself? Or could it have been the practice of the publishing house to sketch out a design by hand in this way? The corresponding finished pages match these sketches nearly exactly. I love to imagine Colwell herself putting to paper the vision of the book as seen in her mind’s eye, and hope to ask her about these special pages one day soon.
Miriam Colwell still lives in Prospect Harbor, in the large farmhouse where she was born. I confess that my peek into the production process of her books conjured certain romantic scenarios in my mind. I couldn’t help writing my own imaginary story of a congenial working relationship between a young author and her publisher. Perhaps there were trips from the fishing village in Maine to New York to meet with editors at Random House or Ballantine, their offices high-up and well-furnished in the style of the forties and fifties. There the twenty-four year-old author would confidently express her vision for each aspect of the final product, and perhaps they would go out to lunch afterward to celebrate. At the same time, I imagined Colwell at home in Prospect Harbor, working as the youngest postmaster in the country and perhaps sharing with residents coming for their mail her updates on the publishing of her latest novel. Or rather, did she keep it low-key, between herself and her partner Chenoweth Hall, until the boxes of freshly-printed books arrived? I also saw her at home at her desk with her printer’s copy, preparing to return it to the publisher with her “corrections marked thereon,” as directed.
I’d like to know what the process was truly like for her. Was the editing helpful? Hurtful? Did she do it all by mail, or did she travel? How did she connect with the publishers in the first place? Did the books come out as she had hoped? Did she enjoy the journey of bringing these manuscripts to market as much as she enjoyed writing them?