Thursday, February 21, 2013

Answer: How did Dickens fare?

First, BRAVO to everyone who wrote in with answers.  I’m not sure quite why (maybe it was the MOOC?), but the quality of the research we’re seeing in the comment stream has greatly improved over the past few months.  Many of the comments in reply to yesterday’s question were excellent.  Not just the answers, but also the process AND (bless you!) the references to the places where you found the data. 

Now, a small mea culpa:  I wasn’t 100% clear on the question.  When I asked for “how many copies were printed by Dickens during that first year of publication?”  what I should have said was:  “how many copies were printed by Dickens in 1843 and all of 1844?”  That would be been a bit more clear.  (Also a better question, since publishing accounts would tend to close at the end of each year.) 

As you know, A Christmas Carol (link to the Gutenberg Project text copy ) was first published by Chapman & Hall (London) on December 19, 1843.  It’s the well-known tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation coming from the ghostly visits of his former partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.  He is a reborn man at the end, full of Christmas spirit and a quality of charity.  The book was an instant success and received positive critical acclaim.
A vivid account of how the book came to be is told in an article published in the Guardian newspaper.  Here's my summary of that article, integrating things I picked up along the way... 

In 1843, Dickens was in a tough financial situation.  He desperately wanted A Christmas Carol to be a beautiful little gift book that would return a nice profit.  Working with his publisher, he tried to make it an attractive (and hopefully, high profit) Victorian equivalent of a coffee table book.  It was to have a fancy binding stamped with gold lettering on the spine and front cover; gilded edges on the paper all around; four full-page, hand-colored etchings and four woodcuts by the famous illustrator John Leech; half-title and title pages printed in bright red and green; and hand-colored green endpapers to match the green of the title page. 

The first printing of "A Christmas Carol" by Chapman & Hall.  Image from Wikimedia.

But production problems began almost instantly.  Dickens disliked the green of the title pages, which had turned a drab olive, and found that the green from the endpapers smudged and dusted off when touched.  By December 17th, only two days before the book's release date, the publisher produced new copies of the book with a red and blue title page, a blue half-title page, and yellow endpapers (which did not require hand coloring). Dickens wrote to his lawyer that "I am sure [the book] will do me a great deal of good, and I hope it will sell, well." The price of the book was 5 s. 

The book was published and almost immediately sold out in its first printing.  But he’d set the price too low. 

According to the Guardian story, when Dickens received the initial receipts of production and sale from Chapman and Hall, he found that after the deductions for printing, paper, drawing and engraving, steel plates, paper for plates, colouring, binding, incidentals and advertising and commission to the publishers, the "Balance of account to Mr Dickens's credit" was a mere £137. "I had set my heart and soul upon a Thousand, clear," he wrote to Forster. "What a wonderful thing it is, that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment!" Even after the close of the following year and the sale of 15,000 copies, Dickens had still only received £726.  As the result of a feud with his publisher over the meagre earnings on his previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens chose to receive a percentage of the profits in hopes of making more money. This obviously did not pan out in the way he had hoped. 

From the VictorianWeb:  Ironically, this, one of the best loved stories in the English language, at first lost the author money, for his income on sales of the first 6,000 copies was but £230 while costs he incurred in suing Parley's Illuminated Library for pirating the Carol amounted to £700 when the malefactors declared bankruptcy.

Search process:   This search was long, but the complications weren't in the searching, but in reading through the things I found and trying to reconcile the different versions of the story.  

I started with the obvious

[ Wikipedia “A Christmas Carol” ]

and read through the article.  The links at the end of the Wikipedia article were marvelous, however, and I followed more than a few of them to get a broader perspective on the story.  Jon Varese’s article in the Guardian was illuminating and fascinating. 

But I wanted to get a few other points of view, and by this point I realized that the story of the creation of “A Christmas Carol” was as much a story in and of itself, so my next query was:

[ “A Christmas Carol” history ]

which led me to the site (which, oddly enough, I should have known about—curator and author George Landow is a good friend). 

But then the problem was determining how much profit he’d made from the printing.  Several sources said £137 for the first printing, while others claimed it was £230.  That’s a big difference!  To further complicate matters, some sources reported the profit for the first year (that is, 1843-1844) as £744  and others as £726.  So, after looking through many sources, I came to the following conclusions:  

Number sold:  6,000 in the first printing (1843); with almost another 9,000 sold in subsequent printings during 1844; or nearly 15,000 in 1843-1844.  

Profit made:  According to the Guardian article, £726, which agrees with the very nice accounting page at  (which reproduces a page from the publisher’s accounts book), the profit for the year was £726, so let’s go with that.  But as many readers pointed out, he seems to have cleared £137 in the first printing.  Nice profit for 6 weeks of writing time, but nothing like the £1000 he had hoped to make. 

Changes made:   In addition to the changes in colors, gilt lettering, title pages and end papers (see above),  three regular readers (Ramón, GRayR and DropTheGloves) pointed out that (quoting GRayR here): 
From the NYT article about "A Christmas Carol"
“At least one change did not occur until the book was at the printer. You will note that the manuscript is silent on whether Tiny Tim lives. But before the first editions went out the door, a line was curiously inserted on page 65 noting that “and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.”
I did not know that.  A marvelous and significant catch! 

For people interested in even more of the backstory of Dickens and "A Christmas Carol," Rosemary M suggests (and I agree with her):  The Man Who Invented Christmas: How CharlesDickens's a Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived our Holiday (Author: Les Standiford) 

The things you learn by writing a blog.

Search on!


  1. The recent QI Jingle Bells episode had an interesting segment that loosely goes with this week's topic. Segment begins around mark 24:39

    1. quite, old boy - a jolly good link tug & Master Fry has a Christmas Pudding in the post to you... all QI. GStQ
      "What should they know of England who only England know?" Rudyard Kipling
      Mayor Boris Johnson welcomes all googlers (glassed or not) to the environs of London - see the Shard
      Shard>Kingdom Tower
      K Tower

  2. Thanks for the shout out Dan,
    This search was different for me. Search terms were easy, but had to look through lots and lots of material to check on correct answers. The write up takes me longer to do than the search. Well actually part of the search, I cut and paste tons of material to a Word Doc and then try to clean it up. The writing down of the path of the search is what has helped me do difficult searches.