Authors: Les Standiford
ntire volumes have been devoted to the impact of Dickens’s immense popularity upon publishing, and he is generally credited as being single-handedly responsible for transforming an industry. In many ways, he would influence publishing as profoundly as the steam engine or the blast furnace would redirect manufacturing. The publishing industry had evolved markedly, however, over the past century, from the moment the startling new form of the novel made its debut. While modern critics debate just which publication constitutes the starting point of the genre, all are agreed that nothing quite like the works of Defoe (
1719), Fielding (
1729), and Richardson (
1740) had come before them. This form of writing, a rendering of imaginary characters involved in a compelling narrative taking place in a world that seemed almost real, all of it designed primarily for the entertainment and not the edification of its audience, proved extremely popular among the British reading public.
In contrast to previous publishing staples—the Bible, schoolbooks, hymnals, instruction manuals, and the like—novels were ephemeral, meant to be consumed and discarded. Thus was created an ongoing demand for new works, not only for works of literary quality but also for a long line of adventure stories, gothic tales, and romances of all sorts. The “silver fork” novel, set against the backdrop of British high society, was one of many such subtypes popular in the decades immediately preceding Dickens’s ascent, with Disraeli’s
(1827) being one of the more notable in the genre. It has been estimated that between 1815 and 1850, some 3,500 novels were published in an effort to fill the demand.
And while these novels were generally printed in small editions of 1,000 to 2,000, some reached higher levels. Sir Walter Scott, who published his first novel,
in 1814, and who would bring out a new book nearly every year until his death in 1832, was the first writer whose success suggested that one might actually make a career solely as a novelist. His
sold out its initial printing of 10,000 within a few weeks of its publication in 1819, an unprecedented number. By Dickens’s time, no book had again reached such heights, but that did not keep publishers from hoping, of course.
Initially, publishers sold their books directly to the public, working primarily by mail order. Advertisements were placed in newspapers and magazines, which were delivered by post and newsboys in London and throughout the country, and readers ordered what appeared interesting. In time, newspapers and magazines began to compile their own lists of new and recommended books, and by the mid-1700s, critical reviews were appearing on a regular basis to guide readers in their choices.
Most of the publishing companies in the 1700s were small family enterprises, and in order to dispose of unsold stock threatening to crowd them out of their homes and small offices, many firms opened shops on the premises to serve a walk-in trade. Others, such as Chapman and Hall in 1830, began business as booksellers who also intended to produce many of their own wares. These vertically integrated enterprises, in which editing, printing, marketing, and sales often went on under the same roof, persisted well into the middle of the nineteenth century, though there were a few stand-alone bookshops that sold stationery, magazines, newspapers, and notions, as well.
By the early 1800s, significant change had come to publishing. The industrial revolution not only encouraged specialization in manufacturing but in general business practice as well. The goals and methods for the successful design, manufacture, wholesaling, and retailing of any product are quite distinct, after all, and it is no different in the editing, printing, distribution, and retailing of books. Thus, those vertical publishing enterprises began to fragment, according to the strengths and interests of those involved.
By 1800, for instance, the Longman family had begun its move out of retailing and into publishing exclusively; by the 1820s the firm would further limit its scope to education, a focus that endures to this day. In the 1840s, William Henry Smith, the son of a West End stationer and erstwhile wholesaler, laid the foundation for contemporary chain retailing, when he established the first network of bookstalls at the nation’s railway stations, his enterprise known then and now as W. H. Smith.
The epicenter of book retailing in London had shifted as well. While printing and publishing businesses remained in the central city, retailers followed the migration of the upper and middle classes toward the affluent western neighborhoods of Covent Garden, St. James’s, and Chelsea. By Dickens’s time, there were two dozen or more shops catering to the carriage trade in the western suburbs, including that of John Hatchard whose Piccadilly bookstore, opened in 1782 and still in operation, became the largest of its kind in all London.
Another modern practice also made its appearance in London about the same time. Bookseller James Lackington, though claiming to act in the interests of the book-buying public, had wisely concluded that selling a great many books at a small margin was more profitable than selling a very few at a high margin. Soon he was purchasing large quantities of unsold stock from publishers, marking them at a steep discount, and watching them fly out the door of a shop that he called the Temple of the Muses—thus was the business of “remaindering” begun. Though Lackington incurred the wrath of many fellow retailers before he died in 1815, publishers privately hailed him for offering a way that they might recoup some of the losses they had incurred by betting too heavily on the wrong literary horse.
While the retail book trade was largely propped up by the tacit mutual agreement not to discount the cover price of books, Dickens was a champion of the free-market system and an opponent of any form of price-fixing. Of course, he had reason to be laissez-faire regarding price wars because he derived most of his writing income early in his career not from book sales but from contracts that paid him for a regular production of words.
Most of his works were composed and published in twenty weekly or monthly installments, sold in magazine format—sometimes as part of an established magazine—for a shilling. His pay went from fourteen pounds an issue for
to £150 for
to £200 for
for instance (with bonuses tied to circulation and various republications). When a novel was completed, the publishers would typically bind up the whole in a three-volume set called a “three-decker” and offer it for thirty-one shillings sixpence, a hefty sum for a reader used to paying a shilling at a time for his reading pleasure.
In fact, the primary market for the three-decker was the sizable network of commercial lending libraries in the country, a market that benefited from Dickens’s enormous popularity. The largest of these syndicates might order up as many as 2,500 copies of a three-volume set of a later Dickens novel—and, indeed, commercial libraries preferred the three-volume format because it meant they could charge three times the fee they got for a one-volume novel. As Dickens became both more popular and more savvy, he would of course fashion contracts that awarded him a far greater return from such ancillary republications of his work.
it is doubtful that anyone could have anticipated the variety of offshoots that developed in its wake. A veritable cottage industry arose around the book’s success, including the production of china figurines representing the book’s characters, as well as Pickwick song books, hats, joke books, and cigars. There was even an unauthorized stage adaptation mounted at the Strand Theater (
Sam Weller, or The Pickwickians
), a bit of theft that roused Dickens to one of his first intemperate outbursts against those who were profiting off the glimmer trailing in his wake.
As Dickens wrote to Forster in September of 1837, several weeks after the show opened, “If the
has been the means of putting a few shillings in the vermin-eaten pockets of so miserable a creature [playwright William George Thomas Moncrieff ], and has saved him from a workhouse or a jail, let him empty out his little pot of filth and welcome. I am quite content to have been the means of releasing him.”
Part of Dickens’s proclaimed equanimity likely stemmed from the fact that he had many other matters taking up his attention. In addition to producing installments of
The Pickwick Papers,
he had in November of 1836 agreed to serve as editor for a new magazine for publisher Richard Bentley, titled
The lucrative contract he signed with Bentley allowed him to free himself from what had become a distracting obligation to the
a position he resigned at once.
Along with his new editorship and the production of
The Pickwick Papers,
Dickens had also committed to write new material for a second edition of
Sketches by Boz.
And if that were not enough, he had signed a contract in May of 1836 with John Macrone, publisher of the
for the production of a novel in three volumes titled
Gabriel Vardon, the Locksmith of London,
which was to be delivered by November 30. (And then there was also the matter of the St. James Theater production of a comic operetta,
The Village Coquettes,
for which he had written the libretto.)
On top of all this, Dickens had also signed a contract with Bentley in August of 1836, agreeing to publish two more three-volume novels. Given that Bentley—with the Pickwick-related rise in Dickens’s reputation—was offering £500 per book and Macrone had only promised £200, Dickens withdrew from the earlier agreement, which lifted some pressure from him. He wrote a stand-alone tale for the first issue of
which appeared on the first day of the new year of 1837, and five days later, his first child, Charley, was born. Soon thereafter, Dickens announced to Bentley that he would be meeting his own commitment to write for the magazine by submitting installments of the adventures of a young hero by the name of Oliver Twist.
That was fine with Bentley, but when the publisher saw that Dickens was sometimes short of the sixteen pages he had promised for each issue, he began to dock the writer’s pay accordingly. Dickens was already distraught over the sudden death in May 1837 of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth (to whom some commentators suspect Dickens was more attracted than to his wife), and by Catherine’s subsequent miscarriage of what would have been their second child. When the writer discovered what Bentley was doing, he countered by insisting that Bentley accept
as one of the novels he had promised.
Bentley objected in turn that Dickens was essentially asking to be paid twice for the same material, but Dickens responded that his value to Bentley had increased vastly in the year since they made their agreement regarding the novels. It was not until Dickens threatened to resign his editorship of the
that Bentley backed down. Dickens was thus able to wrap up the last of the
in November 1837, and happily turn his attention back to
Though there is some question as to the originality of the project (George Cruickshank, the book’s illustrator, claimed later that
had approached Dickens with the idea for a destitute child’s misadventures among thieves), Dickens would work steadily on the book until the last installment appeared, in April of 1839. It was Dickens’s second novel, and certainly—with its memorable scene of Oliver, gruel bowl in hand, innocently asking the poorhouse’s Mr. Bumble for “more”—the tale of Oliver’s escape from the poorhouse and into the clutches of the criminal mastermind Fagin has become one of his best known works.
Peter Ackroyd, author of the definitive modern biography of Dickens, contends that the novel was the first ever to employ a child as a protagonist, and even if the choice was the unconscious gesture of a writer summoning up his own dismal childhood memories or a response to the suggestion of an illustrator, the final outcome was no less powerful. In what has also been called the first Victorian novel (given that the queen had taken the throne in June of 1837), Dickens used the voice of a guileless and victimized Oliver to underscore the damning social criticism that the writer would proffer in one form or another all his life.
This natural inclination toward dramatizing injustice is at the heart of Dickens’s most enduring work. There have been more elegant stylists and perhaps more subtle thinkers employed in the novelist’s trade, and Dickens would improve in these regards as his career continued. Certainly his early plots are sometimes labored, some of his characters are one-dimensional, and he can be justly faulted for a tendency toward melodrama. But still, Dickens’s innate sensitivity to society’s essential flaws, along with the ability to portray elemental forces of good and evil locked in conflict in a form that few readers can turn from, constitute undeniable strengths, even in his early work. These are characteristics on prominent display in