I’ve just finished reading The Man Who Invented Christmas by Lee Standiford and discovered that Charles Dickens, at the height of his fame, did what modern-day authors are doing. Discontented with his publishers, he turned to self-publishing.
By the mid-1840s, Dickens had gained an international audience for works such as The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby – all serialized in monthly magazines before they were published as novels. Each new story gained him more readers until The Old Curiosity Shop, which he began serializing in 1840, was selling 100,000 copies per instalment.
Unfortunately, Dickens’ subsequent works, including the serialization of Martin Chuzzlewitt, which he was at work on in 1843, didn’t do as well.
As the Christmas season approached, Dickens’ publishers Chapman and Hall wanted to reissue a cheap edition of his popular early works. Dickens, however, wanted their financial support so he could write a Christmas ghost story about a miser visited by the spirits of Christmas past, present and future.
Chapman and Hall were unenthusiastic about this new story, but Dickens was convinced it would prove both popular and lucrative, an important point since he was experiencing financial problems.
Dickens’ solution was to retain Chapman and Hall as printers only and pay them a percentage of the sales. Dickens would do all the rest – oversee the book design, hire and work with an illustrator, take care of the marketing and pay for all the costs of production.
“In contemporary terms, then, A Christmas Carol was to be an exercise in vanity publishing,” writes Sandiford. Or, as we call it today, self-publishing.
Dickens not only wrote the story within a few weeks, he got it to market in time for Christmas. There were some features of the exercise that didn’t turn out as he had hoped, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what they were. It’s amazing how issues that are so important today — of copyright, fickle readers, disagreements between author and publisher, book pricing — were just as important 150 years ago.
Any fan of Dickens or Christmas will enjoy this book, but if you’re an author you’ll find an additional level of interest in learning about Dickens career as a best-selling author in the mid-19th century.