Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Profits of Authorship

I was tempted at first to simply post this article without comment and see what comments you came up with. But somehow I think that would conflict with the subject of the article. Christ speaks of the laborer being worthy of his hire, so perhaps this post would be worth less without my labor.

I also considered whether or not to post this article at all, since it easily could make many readers depressed. But, since you already know, or should know, the facts, I don’t suppose there is any harm.

The fact is that many different conclusions can be made from the examples given in this article. I’ll suggest a few after the text, and I’ll bet that you will have more ways of looking at this subject. I do think, however, that the question that the article claims to address is probably the least interesting.

This is, of course, because everyone knows that it is difficult to make a living as a writer.


Profits of Authorship

IT is often said that literature is not a profitable calling, and that a very large majority of those who have devoted themselves to it have found this saying to be true. There is little doubt, says the Youth’s Companion, that the average earnings in the law and medicine, and even in divinity are larger than in the profession of authorship. Yet, on the other hand, to a very limited few writers of genius or talents the writing of books has been a source not only of profit but of fortune.

It is only a little more than a hundred years since Dr. Samuel Johnson, taught his brother authors to look for their profits, not to the rich patrons who paid them a larger or less sum for fulsome dedications, but to the fast increasing public of readers. Yet long before Dr. Johnson’s time there lived, now and then, an English author whose work was well paid for.

While Milton only received #5 for “Paradise Lost,” the poet Pope, not many years after, received no less than $40,000 for the far less laborious task of translating Homer. Similar inequalities appear at a little later period.

Gay got $5,000 for a small volume of poems, $2,000 for his “Beggar’s Opera,” and $5,000 for his play of “Polly,” while a far greater poet, Gray, only gained $2,000 for all his poems, and actually gave away his immortal “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” to his publisher. The publisher made $5,000 on the poem.

Goldsmith, considering his genius, was very poorly paid. The “Vicar of Wakefield” brought him only $300, and his poem, the “Traveler,” yielded only $105. Johnson himself had to be content with moderate rewards for his work, for “Rasselas,” which was written in a single week in order to pay the expenses of his mother’s funeral, brought him $500, while the “Lives of the Poets” only yielded $1,000.

It is interesting to note that now and then prose works brought substantial rewards in the last century and early in the present. For his novel, “Amelia,” Fielding received $5,000, and Hayley received for his “Life of Cowper” no less than $55,000. The life of the philanthropist, Wilberforce, brought its author $20,000.

As we approach more recent times we find yet larger sums pouring in upon the few popular authors who have succeeded in gaining a wide public hearing. For instance, Sir Walter Scott made, and, it is sad to say, squandered, a brilliant fortune, solely the labor of his pen. He is believed to have made out of his poems and novels as large a sum as $1,500 000. Yet he spoke of authorship as “a walking-stick but a very bad crutch.”

An eminent publisher offered Tom Moore $15,000 for a poem as long as Scott’s “Rokeby,” and the result was the production of his famous “Lalla Rookh.” When Thomas Campbell was only twenty-one years of age he got $300 for his “Pleasures of Hope.”

The English historians of the highest rank have fared well in a pecuniary sense, and the same may be said of the three or four leading American historians. Hume got $3,500 a volume for his “History of England,” and Macaulay received once, a check for $100,000 on account of three-fourths of the profits on his history. Gibbon’s receipts from the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” were probably not less than $500,000. Robertson’s prosy “History of Scotland” brought him $30,000, and Linyard received $23,000 for his history.

Charles Dickens is believed to have made a yearly income of $50,000 by his novels. It is certain he made, and by lavish living spent, several goodly fortunes.

Bulwer is said to have made $400,000 by his novels, and Disraeli, for “Endymion” alone, received $60,000.

Three or four American authors, who are still living, have made large fortunes by their books. Sometimes a single work–like the life of Grant, Mr. Blaine’s “Twenty Years of Congress,” and Gen. Wallace’s “Ben Hur”–has earned a fortune for its author.

These instances, however, are the rare exceptions. Fortunes come much more seldom to authors than to other workers in intellectual fields; nor should such cases as have been described delude young people into thinking that authorship is the pathway to wealth.

The Contributor, v10 n4, February 1889


One way to look at this is to wonder about the justice  or lack of justice in what authors get paid–the text gives me the impression that there is no rhyme or reason to it. I suppose that is true in other fields also, although writing is more like owning your own company thank employment, since you never know how much you will earn.

Another question that occurs to me is why this article was written in the first place. It does seem to suggest that the economics of writing is a primary factor, if not the most important factor. This despite the fact that most writers (both then and now, I believe) don’t expect to earn much (I’m NOT saying they don’t deserve to earn a lot), so the economic question is not a primary factor any more–at least not until they’ve had enough success that they think it should be a primary factor.

There may be a lesson in how we value authors here. I don’t see any clear relationship between which authors made a lot of money and which authors are considered good or important today. Milton is, at least in my mind, more important than Pope, despite what they earned, and I am equally ignorant of both Gay and Gray. And despite their fortunes, I don’t think Bulwer is considered all that good a writer, and I’m fairly sure that Gen. Wallace’s literary reputation is not a lot stronger than his battlefield reputation (even though his work has thrived economically in the more than century since his death).

I suppose if nothing else, this list of authors and their earnings shows that there really much of a connection between quality and earnings.

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