Books at Holiday Time


Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.

It’s that time of year again. In my neighborhood, holiday decorations are up, houses glow with lights, and the stores are crowded (which I take as a good sign). It’s also a time when we all think again about songs and stories based on the holidays.

Maybe it’s just the writer in me, but I also think about books.

One of my favorites is A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. It’s undoubtedly one of the best-loved (and best-selling) tales in English literature. It’s been a holiday classic since its original publication almost exactly one-hundred-seventy-four years ago.

The story explored not only Scrooge’s redemptive journey, but the lives of the poor majority surrounding him. Inspired by his own rocky childhood, historians say Dickens was writing an indictment of 19th century industrial capitalism, and the disparity between the poor and the wealthy in early Victorian-era Britain.

He used the stingy-old-man character named Scrooge as a means of highlighting the need to return to traditional Christmas values, family togetherness and charity.

It’s a message we could all stand to hear again.

I was surprised to learn the classic only took Dickens six weeks to write. Published in London by Chapman and Hall on December 19, 1843, it was an immediate success with the public. The initial print run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve.

However, for its author, it was a grave financial disappointment.

Dickens insisted on a lavish format for what was to become the most famous of his holiday books.

He wanted A Christmas Carol to be a beautiful little gift book, and as such he stipulated 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.

Examining preliminary copies, Dickens decided he disliked the color of the title pages, and found the end papers smudged when touched.

He called for immediate changes and by December 17, two days before the book’s official release, the publisher had produced new copies, coupled with a number of significant textual corrections, which pleased the young author.

Dickens, who was still optimistic about sales, set the price of the book reasonably to encourage the largest possible number of purchasers. He hoped more sales would bring in larger profits, relieving some of his financial obligations.

You see, in order to get the story published fast, Dickens had agreed to an unprecedented publishing arrangement: he would assume all of the costs of the initial publication but, in doing so, would also gain all of the profits.

Dickens was initially elated with the public’s overwhelming response. But the cost of producing the book was so high that once expenses were tabulated, there was very little left over for the author himself.

When Dickens received the production receipts from Chapman and Hall, he found after the deductions for printing, paper, drawing, steel plates, engraving, coloring, binding, advertising and a commission to the publishers, the balance to his credit was only one-tenth of what he imagined, and far too little to live on.

“The truth,” wrote Dickens friend and literary adviser, John Forster, “was that the price charged was far too little.”

It’s interesting to note, despite the profitability shortfall, by February of 1844, less than two months after the book’s appearance, at least eight theatrical versions of A Christmas Carol were already in production. Since then, there have been literally hundreds more adaptations for stage, radio, television, and film.

The public loved it. The tale of one man’s redemption interwoven with Victorian Christmas traditions morphed into every publisher’s dream. The book has never been “out of print.”

I find it to be no small irony that for this instantly classic Christmas tale of greed and beneficence, Dickens received none of the millions Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge continue to generate every year.

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7 Responses to “Books at Holiday Time”

  1. Grace Grogan Says:

    Interesting information.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob Wonnacott Says:

    Thank you, Ron. This was a very enlightening story that gives me a “heads up” of what to look out for when I get my first book published.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ron Herron Says:

    Thanks, Carrie. Isn’t that the truth. It’s a good thing I don’t make my living this way. Oh, wait …

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carrie Rubin Says:

    Interesting to learn this backstory. Thanks for sharing it. Sound like failing to recoup the costs of self-publishing has been around longer than we realized. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

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