Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Greatest Self-Published Book the World Has Ever Seen



On this day in 1843, a most blessed event took place.  What was to become arguably the most successful (and best-written) self-published book rolled off the presses.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Yes, but thankfully, A Christmas Carol is very much alive, and continues to live, growing taller every year, fatter with every Yuletide season, scraped and bent and shot full with helium.  It's been Muppetted, Mickey-Moused and Jim-Carreyed until it hardly resembles its original self.  And still it endures.

Charles Dickens' little holiday book is primarily remembered as a Victorian sermon, preaching charity and showing us that even the worst of sinners can repent and buy everyone a big turkey dinner.  Through its unflinching art, A Christmas Carol lashes even the hardest, coldest, most stopped-up ears with a moral whip.  But let us not forget that Dickens always intended his work to be a ghost story, as he notes in the Preface:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

A page from Dickens' revisions of A Christmas Carol

And now I'll shamelessly borrow (perhaps uncharitably) from today's Writer's Almanac email for more background on the book:
      Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six intense weeks. He was struggling for money — he had a large mortgage payment, his parents and siblings were asking for money, his wife was expecting their fifth child, and sales from his most recent novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, were disappointing. He rushed through "A Christmas Carol" in time to get it printed for the holiday season, finished it in early December, wrote "The End" in huge letters and underlined it three times.
      Dickens was angry with his publisher over how little money he had made from Martin Chuzzlewit, so he refused the lump-sum payment that his publisher offered for A Christmas Carol. Instead, he decided to publish it himself. He oversaw every detail of the publication, and he had a very specific vision for the book: he wanted a gold-stamped cover, woodcuts and four hand-colored etchings, a fancy binding, gilt-edged pages, title pages in red and green, and hand-colored green endpapers. He examined the first copies and decided that he didn't like them after all — the green on the title pages was not bright enough, and the endpapers smudged. So he demanded a new version: red and blue title pages, and yellow endpapers. All the changes were made to Dickens' satisfaction by December 17th, two days before the book was to go on sale.
      Dickens wanted as many people as possible to purchase the book, so he charged five shillings, and sure enough, it was a huge best-seller — the first edition of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. By the following spring, the book had run through seven editions.
For even more of the "behind-the-pen" story, I wholeheartedly recommend Les Standiford's excellent The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.


1 comment:

  1. See? One can never really know what Fate has in store for you. Charles Dickens was a wonderful writer, abetted by one, or two, or maybe more, guardian angels!

    And I'd be willing to bet he wouldn't have a hope in hell of being published today!

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