Sunday, June 29, 2008

Charles Dickens, the Crafty Entreprenaur

Most of us know that Charles Dickens was a genius and one of the most quoted writers to ever put pen to paper. But, how many of us know that he was the consummate businessman? He actually sold three copies of the same novel “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club” to most of his same customers and here’s how he managed that:

In 1836 Dickens was approached by a publisher, Chapman & Hall, with the proposal that he write captions for a series of pictures by the popular artist Robert Seymour. These were cartoon-type characters. The wily Dickens, who was unknown at the time, argued that the stories should be the main focus and that he would write a novel to complement the pictures and had a scheme that would guarantee it’s success. The publishers were naturally dubious but they listened to his idea.

He proposed that they publish his novel in monthly installments, a brand new concept. Each chapter would end on a note guaranteed to make the reader anxious to buy the next copy. This worked very well. The reader didn’t mind paying a small monthly stipend and, since the novel spread out over two years, they didn’t realize that they were paying top dollar for the book.

Shortly into the project the artist Robert Seymour, who was a depressive and a heavy drinker, committed suicide. Hablot Knight Browne, nicknamed “Phiz”, was hired and he went on to illustrate Dickens’ works for the next 23 years.

The novel is a collection of the adventures of Samuel Pickwick and his friends and it proved to be a huge success. By the end of the serialization 40,000 copies were being printed. “The Pickwick Papers” had taken the world by storm and launched Dickens to celebrity status. Now all of Dickens’ readers yearned for a more substantial copy of the book. They only had the flimsy magazine pages and a leather-bound version was printed to satisfy this demand. Thus the same reader bought the same book twice.

Now is where Dickens became especially crafty. He organized a group of workers who scoured England buying up the old magazine copies for a mere pittance. Most people were happy to get rid of them and had no idea that the pages would be placed in a fancy tie-back folder and resold as, “The Original Collector’s Edition of The Pickwick Papers”.

This became a coveted item and most of the people who had bought the serialized version month after month now paid a premium price to put the “Collector’s Edition” on their bookshelf or in their safe. They felt, rightly so, that these original flimsy pages would be worth a good deal in the future.

So that’s how Charles Dickens managed to sell three copies of the same book to the same customers. Sounds like a great story line to me...something Dickensian about it !


Blogger Anvilcloud said...

So this is one famous person or writer whom you don't know personally? ;)

5:05 PM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

Ha, ha...AC. A little before my time.

5:19 PM  
Blogger KGMom said...

Ginnie--love this post. It is right up my literary alley.
Not only did Dickens anticipate the soap operas of today (or even TV series)--ending on a cliff hanger--he managed to captivate audiences both sides of the Atlantic.
When little Nell was taken sick in his fictional work, Old Curiosity Shop, readers in America would meet ships from England, waiting for the next serial edition, and would yell--"It little Nell dead?"
That's captivating writing!

8:13 PM  
Blogger Rinkly Rimes said...

I saw a documentary about the life of Dickens, taken from a well-known book about him, which revealed him as a pretty shifty character all round! He had a 'thing' about seventeen year--old girls and he was cruel to his wife. I suppose that's genius.
Rinkly Rimes

5:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Dickens and last week I visited Broadstairs (about 25 miles from my home) and had lunch on the terrace of an hotel overlooking the bay and Bleak House where Dickens lived.

7:12 AM  
Blogger stephen2nd said...

Hi. Have you read Wikepedia: 29th June 08. "Robert Seymour (illustrator)" and "Joseph Grego" ?

8:22 AM  
Blogger Syd said...

Fascinating stuff Ginnie. I like to read the classics and also enjoy biographies.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Scott W said...


5:44 PM  
Blogger Melly` said...

I read the green mile by stephen king in the same... mode... and loved it and it killed me waiting.... sometimes all that enticement etc is worth it? I love to read something good.....

Lot like your blog Ginnie. I so wish you were closer.

3:07 AM  
Blogger Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

A lovely post. I was going to point out he was a fellow Unitarian until I read the comment that he was a bit of a scoundrel!
Maybe he was just doing research for some of his characters.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Crayons said...

Thanks for this story Ginnie.

7:38 AM  
Blogger robin ann mcintosh said...

I always love a good Dickens story, be it by him or about him! thanks ginnie : ) and have a great fourth!

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an author myself, I really enjoyed this story and hadn't heard it before.
Hmmm, maybe I need to speak to my Editor....there might be a profit

11:57 AM  
Blogger An Irish Friend of Bill said...

I live close by to one of Dickens old homes. It's a ! gorgeous place .
Thanks for the story!

2:28 PM  

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