Continuing the Conversation: Amy Hildreth Chen Answers Your Questions on the Literary Archives Market

On August 28, 2020, author Amy Hildreth Chen was a featured guest at the Virtual Book Talk series sponsored by the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture (PHBAC).  Amy spoke about her recent publication, Placing Papers: The American Literary Archives Market, published in June 2020 by the University of Massachusetts Press.  The work is part of the Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book series.

The Virtual Book Talk showcases authors of recently published scholarly monographs, digital-equivalents, and creative works broadly related to book history and print culture. Each installment includes an informal presentation from the author and a Q&A with the audience. These talks are streamed live for registered participants and are recorded for posterity. Talks typically last about one hour.

Amy’s talk was well attended, and the Q&A that followed the presentation was a lively one.  In the limited time that follows a presentation, our guests try to respond to as many questions as possible. Unfortunately, not all questions make it into these programs.

Luckily, these questions are recorded, and Amy has been gracious enough to continue the conversation started at her talk by answering a few of the remaining questions for this article.


For those interested in learning more about Amy’s recent book Placing Papers: The American Literary Archives Market, please visit the University of Massachusetts Press website.


1.  Do you think that an author who has been published thinks differently about the research value of their personal archives from an unpublished author, who already protects their intellectual property — by not publishing?

Of course, I think that an author who has been published thinks differently about the research value of their personal archives than authors who haven’t yet been published. Frankly, an author who has not been published may think their papers are intellectually valuable, but the larger public does not. It’s only through the social proof of publishing that a writer can be visible as having an important contribution. And the more widely published an author is, the more society presumably respects and is interested in that person’s contribution. Thus, the more likely that society wants to know how that contribution came to be made. You can’t have one thing (a literary archive) before the other (a good publishing record).

I think there’s also a difference between how authors think about their intellectual property whether they’re modestly, moderately, or very successful. First, you have to define what successful is. I’d define very successful as being canonical – which, in my realm of work, means being taught at a college level. There are other ways to be considered very successful, such as one’s awards or sales, but I approach the literary archive market through the perspective of whether an author is of interest to academic researchers. For this reason, I find a writers’ likelihood of making it onto syllabi as more important than other types of cultural and financial impact.

Second, the more successful you are, the more your time is valued . . . and the more your papers are worth. If you’re able to command top dollar for your publications, your speaking engagements, and so forth, your intellectual property, which includes all of these components, is worth more. And that means your archives are worth more, too.

From my entirely anecdotal perspective, very few writers are savvy enough to know that they will make a big impact and tailor their expectations on how their intellectual property should be managed and compensated accordingly from the start and then follow through and actually make the impact they predict.

2.  Can you discuss the origins of 19th century writers’ guilds, their relationship to literary agents, and their impact in the 19th and 20th century archival markets?

I’d be happy to discuss the origins of 19th century writers’ guilds, their relationship to literary agents, and their impact in the 19th and 20th century archival markets.

First, writers’ guilds, according to my research, were largely formed to protect authors’ intellectual property. Copyright didn’t exist in the same way it does now, at least in the United States and the United Kingdom. Current debates about how, say, the Chinese view intellectual property and copyright show that these concepts are culturally rooted and the result of years of legal precedent. They’re not an innate thing. Copyright and intellectual property as a whole are ways to guard who gets to make money. It’s a capitalist concept. If I made something, whether it’s a piece of furniture or a play, we now think that only I have the right to make money from it.

Intellectual property gets more complex when you have to defend that right from others. Authors quickly realized that they didn’t have the skill set to fight effectively against those who wanted to profit from their work. Plus, they were at the disadvantage of existing in a brand-new legal space. Their fight would determine legal precedent. Being at the start of a new social concept is much harder than defending your rights within an established framework.

Literary agents came about as a way to meet the need of authors to protect their intellectual property. The impact of strong legal protections (to be more specific, you’d need to research the history and difference between American, British, and other systems, as each have their unique quirks; here I’m assuming and generalizing from Anglo-American precedents) allowed authors not only to sell their books but also eventually to sell their papers.

Gertrude Stein was an early adopter in this field. She didn’t let what would become the Beinecke Library at Yale University get her papers too easily. Instead, Stein reserved the right to pull them if she changed her mind at a later date. That might have been problematic from the university’s perspective, but, as an author, she was savvy about her value very early on. Until much later in the twentieth century, most authors didn’t exploit the value of their papers very well because literary agents mostly focused on capitalizing on published materials’ intellectual property rights. Plus, and probably more importantly, literary scholars didn’t work on contemporary writing until the mid-twentieth century so the demand just wasn’t there.

3.  Did you include writers from your dissertation? If you had to re-write the book who else might you include? And what other anomalies didn’t fit within your data schema who are interesting in their own right?

I did not include two of the three writers from my dissertation into my book. My dissertation covered Ted Hughes‘s, Seamus Heaney‘s, and Lucille Clifton’s path to placing their papers at Emory University. Since my book only discusses Americans, Hughes and Heaney were automatically disqualified from my data set. Lucille Clifton was included in the 7th edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, which formed the basis of my data set, but her case was not one of the ones I discussed at length. So, I mean what I say when I say I threw out my entire dissertation and started over. I think just a few paragraphs in the first chapter survived as a fossil from that earlier era.

If I could re-write the book, I’d leave it as is. I stand behind the Norton Anthology as the basis of my data set. I guess now it’s a question of do I expand the data set by getting every single Norton edition, transcribing their included authors, and making a data set of everyone who has ever been included and then redoing the study to expand it to find an even larger number of examples? Or do I go to a different American anthology (say, one that is better at representing people of color) to compare who is included and what their experiences were on the archives market? Or do I go abroad and choose a parallel anthology to the Norton and see what happened with that country’s top authors? I’ve thought about any of these three options in my next project. I haven’t decided yet. If you want to do this work, please do! The more the merrier. There’s a lot of research to be done on how we think about cultural heritage and financial value. Just, you know, clue me in so we don’t duplicate our efforts.

Regarding anomalies, I want to know more about authors the who chose historically black institutions (HBCUs). In my data set, only two of 79 authors made that choice–Toni Cade Bambara and Audre Lorde, who both placed their papers at Spelman College. Considering the current moment, it’s very, very important to think about how authors of color benefit, or don’t, from existing archive market realities. Therefore, I’d really like to study more what it means to have your archive at an HBCU rather than a predominantly white institution (PWI) and advocate for greater support going to HBCUs to make sure that their archives and special collections have the financial and human resources they need to highlight their collections to students, scholars, and the public.

Amy Hildreth Chen is an independent scholar from North Liberty, Iowa, and author of Placing Papers: The American Literary Archives Market (University of Massachusetts Press, 2020). She previously worked as an academic librarian at the University of Iowa and University of Alabama. Chen obtained her PhD in English from Emory University in 2013.

For those who missed Amy’s talk, a recording is available below and on the AAS YouTube channel.  All PHBAC virtual book talks are recorded.

To learn more about the PHBAC Virtual Book Talk series and to view our upcoming schedule, please visit the AAS website. For more information, contact Kevin Wisniewski, Director of Book History and Digital Initiatives, at  You may also sign up to receive notifications about upcoming PHBAC programs by joining our mailing list.

We look forward to seeing you at our next program!

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Kevin Wisniewski

Director of Book History and Digital Initiatives, American Antiquarian Society

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