George Smith, publisher of the Cornhill Magazine, and also of Smith, Elder & Co., offered Eliot £10,000 to run the book in installments in the Cornhill and to publish subsequently in book form. The Cornhill, recently established, was struggling to keep its sales numbers up. “By any reckoning it was indeed a magnificent offer: Trollope had received £1,000 for the serial rights to Framley Parsonage, Bulwer Lytton £1,500 for A Strange Story (with the guarantee of a further £1,200 for publication in book form), and even Thackeray only £2,100 (itself an almost unprecedented sum) for the six-part serial Lovel the Widower.”
£10,000 represents over a million dollars at today’s values, but George Eliot turned it down. She gives her reason as timing: “The idea of my novel appearing in the Cornhill is given up, as G. Smith wishes to have it commenced in May, and I cannot consent to begin publication until I have seen nearly to the end of the work.” Eventually, after writing a bit more of the book (8 out of 74 chapters only though), she did agree to let the Cornhill do it, with a later start date, and for $7,000 only (still about $850,000 now). Smith Elder also got the exclusive right to publication in book form for six years, and the right to keep in print one edition of their choice after that. George Eliot obviously had sales power, but “£7,000 was almost twice what she earned from The Mill on the Floss, and not much less than she had hitherto made from all her previous novels put together.” Her previous novels were: Scenes of Clerical Life (really a collection of stories), Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss. Silas Marner was published before Romola, but its composition interrupted her writing of Romola.
“The House of Blackwood, under whose imprint all her previous novels had appeared, and which had every reason to assume that it would be offered Romola, had always been the most courteous and accommodating of publishers.” John Blackwood wrote her a letter which is model for those author letters all publishers, including of course Andy, have had lots of practice at composing, saying you are absolutely right to do this; we’d have loved to publish the book; we understand your decision; we are so happy for you. Internally he was more outspoken. Writing to his nephew he said “I am sorry for and disappointed in her but with their [Eliot and George Henry Lewes] extortionate views we could not have made an arrangement so all is for the best. She does not know how strongly her desertion and going over to the enemy will tell upon the public estimate of her character and most justly.”
The fact that Lewes was offered, and (somewhat reluctantly) took on an editorship role at the Cornhill as part of the deal is perhaps a complicating factor. Whether he really pushed Polly to go for the big bucks or not, as Blackwood suggests, is not clear.
“Looking back many years later on Romola‘s serialization in the Cornhill (July 1862-August 1863), George Smith recalled that though it certainly failed to increase the sale of the magazine, he found it ‘difficult to say what, if any, effect it had had in sustaining the sale’. What evidence we have, circumstantial and somewhat partial though it is, suggests that then effect was minimal. On 12 July 1862, soon after the publication of the first installment, William Blackwood wrote from Edinburgh to his uncle John in London to report with undisguised glee ‘the going down sale of the Cornhill . . . and no fresh stir from Romola. . . [and later] Romola has not raised the sale in the very slightest and . . . they are going to have a novel by Trollope set agoing at once. I wonder how G.E. will like that!'”
“Romola was published in book form, in three volumes at one and a half guineas [£1/11/6], on 6 July 1863 (i.e. before the appearance of the final part [of 14] in the Cornhill, and just four weeks after George Eliot had finished writing). . . . 2,288 copies were printed, of which 1,714 were disposed of over the next twelve months. At least some of these were sold in the guise of a second edition, which, remarkably, was announced as ‘now ready’ in the Publishers’ Circular for 16 July 1863 — a mere ten days after the book’s first publication. Whether this tactic was designed to encourage the trade to infer that Romola was proving a runaway success, we can only speculate. In fact, the so-called second edition was bound up from the same sheets (and in the same cloth) as the first, except for cancel titles specifying ‘SECOND EDITION’ in each volume.”
The opinion of reviewers tended to fall into the pattern — lot of research, good book, but it’ll never be popular. In truth I found it a bit disappointing. Even with Andy’s annotation there’s too much confusing, and strangely unconvincing history and a rather thin, erratic story. Romola herself and her blind scholar father provide interesting sighters for Dorothea Brooke and Rev. Edward Casaubon. It was obviously not the sort of thing Smith Elder needed to boost the Cornhill‘s sales, and nor did their 3-volume book edition shine. It had been remaindered by 1865 when they brought out an illustrated edition at 6 shillings. “Just 1,519 copies were printed, and sales were correspondingly modest: barely 800 in the first year, and a further 350 in the second. (A reprint of 500 copies was set in hand in January 1869, which lasted until 1872.) The stereotype plates cast for this edition were subsequently reused throughout the 1870s to print a ‘New Edition’, selling as 2s. 6d. — the format selected by Smith, Elder & Co. according to the tens of the original contract. The illustrated title-page was dropped, and only the frontispiece retained; 3,000 copies were printed in June 1869, and a further 2,082 four months later; 3,620 had been sold by the beginning of 1870; 1,000 more were printed in November 1870 and another 2,030 in May 1871. By 1 January 1872 something over 7,000 had been sold; further reprints, of 2,000 each, followed in September 1872, October 1873, and October 1874. Clearly the 2s. 6d. format was a successful one.”
What to make of these shenanigans? Seems we moderns have nothing new to show of spendthrift and borderline devious proceedings. Blackwood’s did eventually publish an edition of Romola, initially to go in a collected edition, and were also the publishers of Eliot’s subsequent books, so all ended well for them despite their grumpy forebodings. Can Smith Elder’s deal have been a sensible one? We know the three-decker was remaindered, so let’s assume 2,000 of the 2,288 copies printed were actually sold, for a total revenue of about £2,030. In its first ten years the 6s. then the 2s. 6d. edition would have brought in about £1,975. (Having no real idea, I have assumed an average discount of 33.33%, which I bet is actually a bit high). Whatever proportion you think Smith Elder would have assigned as author’s cost (royalty in a conventional modern contract) the fact that their total revenue fell below the amount they paid to the author by £2,940 represents a pretty disastrous loss. Of course they may in spite of all indications to the contrary have considered its contribution to the Cornhill‘s survival as an important factor: if you write off even £2,100 (Thackeray’s fee) as a Cornhill editorial debit, we still haven’t broken even, and we haven’t yet counted the cost of printing and binding the books and paying for the illustrations by Frederick Leighton. However Smith Elder survived till 1916 when it was merged into John Murray’s, so the damage wasn’t fatal. Of course all publishers make such mistakes all the time: the business is a crap shoot.