Pity the Poor Author


W.E.B. Du Bois


November 1, 1920

Every once in a while someone drops in and says cozily:

“I wish you’d give me a copy of your last book.”

Or they write:

“The Western Aggregation of Sunny Girls has just opened a reading room. Won’t you donate one or two of your books?”

I guard myself carefully in such cases, so as not to be surprised into violence. Letters, I can answer with polite vagueness or forget. Personal appeals I turn into a joke, provided I can summon the necessary self control quickly. But sometimes I am a ghastly failure. Then I turn and ask grimly:

“Do you know that I have to buy my own books?”

They are vastly surprised. Apparently they had been under the impression that I had a tree in my backyard which grew a profusion of delicate darkwaters and Negroes and souls of various folk and that all I had to do was to go out and water it and shake it.

I proceed: An author usually gets six free copies with which he partially supplies his family of six, his poor cousins and twenty close friends. All further copies he must buy of the publisher. He gets the same small discount as the retail merchant, but no more.

A request then of an author for a copy of his latest is simply a demand for him to give you $1.80 cash, in addition to postage.

Now it may be that you are in need of charity and that he is a bloated bond-holder to whom $1.80 is a bagatelle. But it may, on the other hand, be barely possible that $1.80 looks just as big to him as to you. And in addition, he has had the job of writing the book.

At any rate, you don’t go to your personal friend the grocer and say:

“I wish you’d make me a present of ten pounds of that nice sugar!”

And you don’t hail your friend the carpenter with:

“Come and fix my gate for nothing, Bill; I do so like your work.”

And if you do not expect the carpenter and the grocer to serve you for nothing, why, in Heaven’s name, do you pick on the poor author?


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1920. “Pity the Poor Author.” The Crisis 21 (1): 7. https://www.dareyoufight.org/Volumes/21/01/pity-the-poor-author.html.