A Publisher is Born: Anna Dostoyevsky Rocks the Literary Establishment

by Andrew D. Kaufman

This is the third of a three-part blog series (for Part 1, click here; for Part 2, click here), in which scholar and author Andrew D. Kaufman introduces readers to his celebrated new book, The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, published by Riverhead. You can read a review of the book published in The New York Times here. To learn more about the book or to order a copy, please visit this site.

In her memoirs, Anna thanked fate for the trying first years of her marriage. In that time, she reflected, “I had developed from a timid, bashful girl into a woman of decisive character, no longer frightened by the struggle with life’s misfortunes.” Her female friends observed in her a greater flintiness and reserve around men, and reproached her for not paying attention to her physical appearance, for not dressing well, for not doing her hair fashionably. “Even though I agreed with them,” Anna wrote, “I did not want to change.” With her signature combination of ambition, steely pragmatism, and tolerance for risk, Anna ignored the criticisms of friends and remained focused on what she knew was right and necessary. If her first blush of love for Dostoyevsky had been, in her own words, “more like an adoration and reverence,” that love had by now morphed into a kind of active force, one that would not only speed Dostoyevsky’s ascent into the front ranks of Russian literature, but also launch Anna herself onto a significant and lasting career path of her own.

In those first years after their return to Russia, Anna worked fourteen hours a day—not only as a wife and mother, but also as a stenographer, secretary, and financial manager—all the while seeking outside work to supplement the family’s meager income. Early in 1873, after she and Dostoyevsky unsuccessfully tried to interest various publishers in a separate edition of The Possessed, they finally got a bite—but after all the negative criticism the book had received, the best offer they received was fora mere five hundred rubles, to be paid in installments over two years. The offer was too paltry to consider, but it gave them an idea: Years earlier, during their European travels, the couple had tossed around the idea of starting their own press and publishing Dostoyevsky’s works themselves. It was an idea Dostoyevsky had pondered on and off since the 1840s; he’d even mentioned the idea to his brother Mikhail, though to no avail. It had remained an unreachable dream—but with Anna at his side, anything seemed possible.

For a couple in their financial circumstances, the prospect could hardly have seemed more farfetched. Dostoyevsky himself was incapable of running such a business, so the management would fall to Anna, who was both inexperienced in business and burdened by other family responsibilities. And for a twenty-six-year-old woman to wade into such dangerous waters struck Dostoyevsky’s family and friends as downright foolhardy. Certain that such a risky undertaking would only sink the family deeper into debt, they tried to talk the couple out of it.

Anna herself understood the risks, which were indeed enormous. “In those days,” she recalled, “no writer published his own works, and even if such a bold fellow did appear, he would inevitably pay for his daring by taking a loss.” Up to that point, the Russian book business consisted of printing shops who typically bought the rights to an author’s work and then printed and distributed the books throughout Russia, with nearly all the profit going to the publisher and very little to the author. Nor were gender politics on the couple’s side. In the history of the notoriously cutthroat Russian book business, there had been only one translation and publication company successfully owned and run by women. Founded in 1863 by Marya Trubnikova and Nadezhda Stasova, two of the pioneering early feminists of the 1850s, the Women’s Publishing Cooperative employed as many as thirty-six women and brought out textbooks, children’s books, and translations of European classics such as Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales and Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The Women’s Publishing Cooperative was still in business as Anna was mulling the prospect of starting her own firm (it would close six years later, in 1879), and the names Trubnikova and Stasova were well-known in the publishing world. It is likely that Anna had heard of them, especially since she and her husband had become friendly with one of their close colleagues, Anna Filosofova, the third member of the original feminist triumvirate.

Despite this direct link between Anna and the early feminists, it is doubtful how much she could have learned from Trubnikova’s and Stasova’s particular business model, as they had the advantage of being able to rely on each other, as well as a team of employees. Anna, by contrast, would be embarking on this venture with an impetuous, impractical man as both her only business partner and her sole author—and one whose commercial track record was uneven at best.

But Anna had long since proven herself a shrewd manager of Dostoyevsky, the author and the man. Together they had overcome professional and personal challenges that would have ended many a lesser marriage. Dostoyevsky was facing an almost hopeless impasse when they met, but Anna had helped him stave off disaster through her intelligence, work ethic, and emotional support. Her friends and family may have doubted the couple’s prospects for business success, but Anna and her husband had reason to believe that they were equal to the task.

Anna went about researching the publishing industry with her usual methodical thoroughness and nerve. She arranged to wander into bookstores posing as a curious customer, where she would press the shopkeeper for information about the sales of specific books, how the store worked with publishers, even what discounts they received. At one print shop, where she was ordering business cards for her husband, Anna chatted up the owner, who explained that most books were published “on a cash basis,” meaning the store had to pay outright for stock on receipt. (If an author had a proven track record, a printer might extend a six-month credit, charging interest on the unpaid balance after six months.) Paper suppliers would offer similar terms, she learned from this same unsuspecting store owner, who went on to give Anna a rough estimate of the total cost of paper, printing, and binding for publishing a book.

With what she learned, Anna sketched out the beginnings of a plan. A limited edition of thirty-five hundred copies of The Possessed, printed in large, elegant type on satiny white paper, would cost roughly four thousand rubles. At the usual sale price of three rubles fifty kopecks per copy, that would mean gross profits of 12,250 rubles. After deducting the roughly 30 percent bookseller discount for bulk orders, as well as other expenses, the Dostoyevskys stood to net well over four thousand rubles—a handsome sum, especially when compared to the measly five-hundred rubles offered by Bazunov.

After several months of such reconnaissance missions, Anna concluded that, whatever the risks, owning their own publishing enterprise was too lucrative a prospect to pass up. She ordered paper from one of Petersburg’s best manufacturers, who gave it to her on credit. She then arranged for the printing and had the books bound. And so, on January 22, 1873, a day that Anna would proudly remember as the start of her career as a publisher, an advertisement appeared in the Petersburg newspaper The Voice announcing the independent publication, in a single volume, of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. 

“Our publishing business began brilliantly,” recalled Anna. Before the end of the year, they had cleared three thousand copies of The Possessed. Over the next couple of years they would sell out the remaining five hundred copies, netting the couple, just as Anna had calculated, a profit of four thousand rubles—around fifty-four thousand dollars today—which was enough to pay off some of their most urgent debts. “I felt a rare sense of triumph,” Anna wrote. “I was happy about the money, of course, but mainly because I had found myself an interesting business.” And, in a hint of how much she thrived on exceeding the low expectations of others, she took special pleasure in the fact that her enterprise “had done so well despite the warnings of my literary advisors.”

Anna Grigoriyevna Dostoyevskaya in the 1870s

Thus began Anna’s career as Russia’s first solo woman publisher, a career that would in time wrest Dostoyevsky out of debt and continue to provide for their family for almost the next four decades. Beyond these benefits, the business model she created, which was unique in Russia at the time, had liberated her husband, a working creative who had been forced for decades to depend on an exploitative system for his livelihood. Now he was able to earn far more than he ever had from his novels, through a business that the Dostoyevskys controlled themselves.

Though no businessman himself, Dostoyevsky was starting to recognize the extent of his wife’s practical talents. “I rely on your help in everything,” he wrote Anna in the summer of 1875. He had already signed a document granting her control over the copyrights to all of his works, as well as a so-called “solid passport,” which allowed Anna to receive money orders at banks and conduct her own business affairs—something that Russian wives were not allowed to do without their husband’s express permission until 1914.

They were full partners now, Anna and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, both professionally and personally. Beyond participating in his creative work as his stenographer, first reader, and editor, she also controlled all other aspects of their publishing enterprise: negotiating with paper suppliers, typesetters, printers, and booksellers, and handling almost all of their business correspondence. It was an enormous amount of work, a rare portfolio of responsibilities for any single individual to manage entirely on their own. As one recent historian of publishing in Russia has pointed out, “The editorial work involved in book publication, especially fiction, would, as a rule, be divided between the author or translator and the proofreader. . . . The publisher was responsible for the book but, as such, did not take part in the process of preparing it for publication.” Anna, by contrast, was responsible for the entire process. The couple had retrofitted some of the rooms in their apartment to accommodate their publishing operation, but there is no record that they ever rented a separate office for this purpose. With finances tight, Anna had long since learned to make do on the bare minimum, in business as in their private life.

Dostoyevsky, almost in spite of himself, was discovering that his “gambler wife,” as he had once teasingly called Anna, was proving just as bold—and far more adept—at gambling as an entrepreneur than he had been at the roulette tables. Moreover, her own penchant for risk was balanced by the sort of strategic pragmatism and discipline her husband lacked. As a result, where his gambles often led to torment and penury, hers were fostering the most stable period in Dostoyevsky’s career.

To learn more about The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky by Andrew D. Kaufman. To order a copy, please visit this site.

Andrew D. Kaufman is an associate professor, General Faculty, lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literatures, and assistant director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Virginia. A PhD in Slavic languages and literatures from Stanford University, Kaufman is the author of Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times and Understanding Tolstoy. His work has been featured on Today, NPR, and PBS, in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and he has served as a Russian literature expert for Oprah’s Book Club. Kaufman is the creator of Books Behind Bars, introducing incarcerated youth to the writings of Dostoyevsky and other Russian authors.

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