#Publishing paid Dickens

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As concerns rage over discrimination and disparity in the publishing industry, we take a look at one of the literary greats of English writing, his financial acumen, how he built his success, along with anecdotes from his life and comparisons with contemporaries.

“So well has All the Year Round gone that it was yesterday able to repay me, with five per cent interest, all the money I advanced for its establishment (paper, print etc. all paid, down to the last number), and yet to leave a good £500 balance at the banker's!”

In October 1843, a 31-year-old Charles Dickens walked out of Chapman and Hall’s (his publisher) office, deeply worried. Sales of his two recent works, the travelogue, American Notes and the novel, Martin Chuzzlewit had been extremely disappointing and the publisher had decided to slash his pay by fifty pounds. This was at a time when he had just moved into a larger house to accommodate his fifth child. His ne’er-do-well father was always at hand to ask for a handout and given his stature as a successful author, other relatives too frequently requested him for loans.

In despair, he made an impossible commitment. He would, he said, deliver a Christmas book in six weeks. It was a desperate gambit by a man who was deep in debt and who more than anything else, feared turning into a financial disaster like his father.

In February 1824, owing to his father’s unpaid debts, 12-year-old Charles Dickens was taken out of school and sent to work at the Warren’s Blacking Factory. His task was to label bottles of shoe polish for 6 shillings a week. Soon after, Dickens’ father was sent to debtors’ prison. His family was allowed to move into the prison with him. But, young Dickens was out on the streets for a few weeks since the factory was too far away from the prison. Later, he found cheap lodgings near his factory. This experience scarred him for life and after finding success in 1836 with Pickwick Papers, Dickens swore to be financially prudent.

Yet here he was, wallowing in a financial mire. A Christmas book seemed to be the way out. Dickens delivered his manuscript by December 3. It was published almost immediately and by Christmas Eve, he had a success on his hands.

But financial security was not an immediate outcome. The novels that followed sold well enough to provide Dickens a steady income but it was the creation of another ‘product’ that saw Dickens achieve what he had longed for all his life: financial success.

Dickens the performer

At the age of six, a precocious young Dickens wrote his first play, ‘Misnar, Sultan of India’, played the leading role and directed the neighbours’ children. His love for the stage continued into his teens and later, as a young man. This love for the stage was to result in the creation of what came to be known as ‘Readings’ wherein he performed his novels on stage and which became something of a sensation in England and the United States. When he began these performances in 1853, it was for charity. But in 1858, he decided to cash in on their success and charge for them.

 

Dickens’s books continue to sell, bringing in almost £3 million a year from sales in shops, online or as e-books. Adaptations of his work for TV and film also fetch huge sums of money. In death as in the last quarter of his life, Dickens remains a financial success.

 

Crowds flocked to his performances and there were reports of women fainting when he enacted the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist. So compelling was his performance! But equally, he pulled off comic scenes with aplomb leaving audiences that sometimes swelled to 3,000 or more in splits. These readings were financial smash hits. And Dickens began to rake it in.

Dickens and his journals

In line with his attempts to secure himself financially, Dickens was also involved in two journals. Household Words was co-owned by him and ran between 1850 and 1859. A dispute with his partners resulted in Dickens starting a new journal in 1859, All the Year Round. This time, Dickens decided not to take on any major partners.

The new weekly magazine debuted in April 1859 and featured the first instalment of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. The launch was an immediate success leading Dickens to comment, “So well has All the Year Round gone that it was yesterday able to repay me, with five per cent interest, all the money I advanced for its establishment (paper, print etc. all paid, down to the last number), and yet to leave a good £500 balance at the banker's!”

Both his journals regularly serialised his novels in order to boost circulation. Readers waited with bated breath for the next issue and almost always, the journals sold out as soon as they hit the stands.

In contrast to Dickens was his earlier contemporary, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), the ‘father of the historical novel’. Scott’s early successes led him to attempt becoming a publisher. His choice of works proved to be less than satisfactory and all of his firm’s published works failed. Scott also attempted to put together an annual journal known as the Edinburgh Annual Register. Each volume was to contain an account of world events of the previous year as well as commentaries on developments in literature, science and fine arts. Lack of attention and indifferent editing (by Scott himself) stymied the journal. By 1812, it was losing money hand over fist.

Worse was to follow some years later. In 1826, owing to some imprudent decisions, Scott found himself involved in the bankruptcy of an Edinburgh publisher and was left with a debt of £120,000 — several million pounds in today's money. He committed the earnings of his future works to paying off this debt and at the time of his death in 1832, had still not paid it off.

Another of Dickens’ contemporaries who lived off his writings was Karl Marx. But for all his financial analyses, in matters of personal finance, Marx was hopeless. In 1859, he was so broke that he couldn’t afford the postage stamps to mail off his new manuscript, leading him to lament, “I don’t suppose anyone has ever written about ‘money’ when so short the stuff.” Luckily for him, his collaborator was the wealthy Friedrich Engels who was forever at hand to provide financial succour.

Dickens’s books continue to sell, bringing in almost £3 million a year from sales in shops, online or as e-books. Adaptations of his work for TV and film also fetch huge sums of money. In death as in the last quarter of his life, Dickens remains a financial success.

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