Sunday, December 18, 2005

Literary Gains

Dropmore: July 29th, 1823 - I heard to-day, from Mr. Rogers, that Constable, the bookseller, told him last May that he had paid to the author of '"Waverley' the sum of 110,000l. To that may now be added the produce of ' Redgauntlet' and ' St. Ronan's Well,' for I fancy ' Quentin Durward ' was at least printed, if not published. I asked whether the 'Tales of my Landlord,' which do not bear the same name, were taken into calculation, and was told they were; but of course the poems were not.

All this has been done in twenty years: in 1803, an. unknown Mr. Scott's name was found as the author of three very good ballads in Lewis's' Tales of Wonder;' this was his first publication. Pope, who had till now been considered as the poet who had made the most by his works, died worth about 800l. a year. Johnson, for his last and best work, his ' Lives of the Poets,' published after the ' Rambler' and the Dictionary had established his fame, got two hundred guineas, to which was afterwards added one hundred more.

Editor’s notes
'Waverley' having been published in 1814, the sum mentioned by Constable was earned in nine years, by eleven novels in three volumes each, and three series of ' Tales of My Landlord ' making nine volumes more; eight novels (twenty-four volumes) being yet to come. Scott's first publication (Translations from the German) was in 1796. During the whole of his literary life, he was profitably engaged in miscellaneous writing and editing ; and whatever the expectations raised by his continuing popularity and great profits, they were surpassed by the sale of the corrected and illustrated edition of the novels commenced under his own revision in 1829.

Altogether, the aggregate amount gained by Scott in his lifetime very far exceeds any sum hitherto named as accruing to any other man by authorship. Pope inherited a fortune, saved, and speculated; and we must come at once to modern times to find plausible subjects of comparison. T. Moore's profits, spread over his life, yield but a moderate income. He got 3,000;. for ' Lalla Rookh.' Byron's did not exceed 25,0002. Talfourd once showed me a calculation by which he made out that Dickens (soon after the commencement of ' Nicholas Nickleby ') ought to have been, during two or three years, in the receipt of 10,000l. a year.

Thackeray (exclusive of Lectures) never got enough to live handsomely and lay by. Sir E. B. Lytton is said to have made at least from 80,000l. to 100,000l. by his writings, and the demand for them has been constantly on the increase.

I have heard that Mr. Routledge gave him 20,000l. for a cheap edition of his novels for ten years, and that ' Rienzi' sells best. We hear of sums of 500,000 fr. (20,000l.) having been given in France for histories—to Thiers and Lamartine, for example—but the largest single payment ever made to an author for a book was the cheque for 20,000l. on account, paid by Messrs. Longman to Lord Macaulay soon after the appearance of the third and fourth volumes of his History; the terms being that he should receive three-fourths of the net profits.

Gibbon and Kobertson were (I believe) the first authors who received large profits. Gibbon got 10,000l for his ' History of the Decline and Fall,' and Robertson was paid at a similar rate after his reputation was established. Since their time, readers have immeasurably increased, and neither the number of copies sold, nor profits, can be taken as comparative tests of popularity, much less of merit. As regards profits, we know merely what has accrued to the author, who may have made a bad bargain ; and circulation is greatly influenced by price.

Byron's poems came out at 3s. or Is. 6d, Scott's at 2l 2s. in quarto. Again, if an author publishes little and rarely, the demand will be proportionally large for the individual work. An admixture of the moral or religious element is a great attraction. Pollok's ' Course of Time ' sells prodigiously; and the circulation of Mr. Martin Tupper's ' Proverbial Philosophy ' counts by tens of thousands. Bundle's 'Cookery ' and Buchan's ' Domestic Medicine ' stand high.

Forty thousand copies of Murray's Handbook for Northern Germany, Belgium and the Rhine, written and published by himself, were sold within the year.
Occasionally a hit is made by a pamphlet, as by Lord Erskine's ' Armata,' which went rapidly through more than twenty editions ; or Sir E. B. Lytton's ' Present Crisis,' (1834) which sold 30,000 copies in a dear form in six weeks and 60,000 more in a cheap form. Very large sums are now gained by novels, which are often paid for twice over, first as magazine articles, and then as completed works. More than 8,000l is said to have accrued to George Elliot from ' Romola.' But the announcement of large prices is a prevalent mode of puffery, both in France and England. Kinglake's History has been more talked of and more read than any book since the day of its publication: it is, moreover, a book which no good library can be without. It arrived rapidly at the fourth edition ; yet it is my full belief (although I have no precise information on the point) that the author's profits have hitherto fallen short of 5,000l.

The establishment of large circulating libraries, like Mudie's, has exercised a marked, although imperfectly understood, influence on literature. On the one hand, a remunerative demand is insured to any book that attracts attention : on the other, the secondhand copies flung upon the market after the first flush have a deteriorating and discouraging tendency.

The foregoing comment is out of all proportion to the text, but the facts and hints may prove useful to future historians of literature.

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