In yesterday’s post about commission publishing I mentioned that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, had used this form of relationship with his publisher. The pseudonym was chosen by Edmund Yates, an editor, from a list of four submitted by Dodgson, the others being Edgar Cuthwellis, Edgar U. C. Westhill, and Louis Carrol. It’s based upon a latinization and reversal of the author’s first two names. He signed his contract for Alice in Wonderland and two other books with Macmillan in 1883.

This is a reproduction of the contract.

The source for this is a paper by Mark Cooney at Elsevier’s SSRN site. (Link via The Passive Voice.)  Professor Cooney tells us he has the permission of the Lewis Carroll estate to reproduce, and discuss, this contract. I do not but I hope and trust this is OK, since you could of course easily find the evidence by following the SSRN link.

We tend to assume nowadays that failing to get your publisher to  finance the production of your books is a mark of disfavor. Only self-publishers are faced with this investment! But we need to remember that the practice wasn’t all that rare prior to the last century.

Under this deal Rev. Dodgson was getting 4/3 (four shillings & three pence)* for every copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Macmillan agreed to sell the book at a retail price of 6/- (six shillings), giving the trade a discount of 1/-. The publishers were thus going to receive 5 shillings per copy, so their margin would be 9d a copy, or 12.5%. Of course, out of his share the author would have to pay the cost of manufacture, which may have been around 11d or 1/-. A retail price of six times unit cost is often referred to as a crude rule of thumb in publishing — very crude, but useable for this exercise. Thus Dodgson was clearing 3/3 per copy, which if recalculated as royalty would represent a royalty of 54%!

Of course he was assuming the financial risk of publication and would have had to pay John Tenniel for his illustrations. With perfect hindsight we can see this wan’t a problem: but until the books sold, the books hadn’t sold. This was his first book publication, apart from a couple of mathematical works, but coming from a solidly middle class background (church and military) he could presumably afford the gamble. When the book was published in 1865, apparently 2,000 copies were printed which would imply a bill of around £100. Allow for another £100 for Tenniel, and for his outlay of £200 Dodgson would clear around £6,000 on the first printing. And the book reprinted that same year. Not too shabby.

The book was an instant success. Even Queen Victoria enjoyed it and according to Wikipedia is said to have commanded that the author dedicate his next book to her, which he duly did, presenting to her a copy of An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. Dodgson did deny this tale though, so presumably it’s nonsense.

Is it surprising that the contract would have been typeset? The typewriter wasn’t invented till 1874 and didn’t become widespread for a decade thereafter. One might have expected a scribe to have written out legal documents, but I guess Macmillan just gave it to their typesetters, who were no doubt there on the premises.


* Until 1971 when we got decimal coinage, Brits would write their money out in this way. 1/- meant one shilling. 1d meant one penny. 1/1 meant one shilling and one penny. There were 12 pence in each shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, thus 240 pennies made a pound. (Pennies were quite large so a pound’s worth of them might well have weighed more than a pound.) Thus if you were holding 19/9 (which is 19¾ shillings) and someone gave you 3d (a threepenny bit — pronounced thruppny bit) you’d then be possessed of £1. Along the way there were also sixpenny bits (6d), florins (2/-), half crowns (2/6) and going downwards halfpennies (pronounced hay-pnees) and farthings, a quarter of a penny. This was actually all pretty straightforward if you lived it.