The heroine of the Regency historical mystery series I’m currently scribbling is a novelist. She’s not poor, but she has expenses her income can’t meet. So I was interested in how much she might earn as a beginning writer. Of course, Jane Austen instantly came to mind.
It’s a fascinating bunny hole to dive down. Did you know writers had to pay for publication then? It didn’t necessarily have to be upfront, but one way or another, they paid for the printing. If one was well known and had an influential patron who could recommend your books so a group of people would pay in advance, one might serialize and pay as you go. Neither my heroine nor Austen were in that position.
Another means was to sell the copyright. Because Austen had no money to pay for publication (and probably no confidence that the book would sell), she sold the copyright of an early novel she called Susan for ten pounds (roughly the equivalent of 77£ today, but more on that later). This meant she had no right to any further proceeds. The publisher could throw the book in a waste can, if he wished, which he apparently did, because it was never published until Austen bought the copyright back quite a few years later and renamed it Northanger Abbey.
The third alternative was to pay the publisher to print your book, either outright or through payment of a “commission,” similar to our royalty system today except in reverse. The publisher would agree to foot the cost, then repay themselves at the rate of 10% on each book sold. The amount over that would go to the author. (Today, of course, the costs are apparently so high that authors only receive 10% or less of the cover price.) However, if a novel did not earn enough in sales, the author still ended up responsible for costs.
Poor Jane was just a country miss with no aristocratic connections in London, so when her father offered her first version of Pride and Prejudice, called First Impressions, around 1797, the publisher rejected it. Jane may not have known about this.
Her father died in 1809 and the need for money became more acute. This time, her better-positioned brother negotiated a deal for Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice on commission. The novels came out anonymously because women were supposed to marry and have children, not a career. (Which is why my heroine is hiding out in the country while she scribbles!)
Selling on commission wasn’t necessarily the best way to go either. Because Austen was essentially paying for the publication, the publisher chose to make a very expensive printing and sell the books for the equivalent of $58 today! That certainly limited the number of people who read them. I imagine they sold mostly to libraries that round.
Austen earned 140£ from Sense and Sensibility after paying for costs. I think my heroine could do very well on that amount of money—but that’s not as easy to determine as we’d like, which is why giving money equivalents is hard to do.
For a better explanation than I’m prepared to make, take a look at https://byuprideandprejudice.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/money-equivalencies-between-1811-and-today/comment-page-1/
Labor and materials are so vastly different between then and now, and our needs so completely different, that “equivalent” takes on many meanings. In one account, I read that Austen earned 600£ from the four novels she published before her death. In today’s purchasing power that might be between 36000£ to 51000£, depending on the source used. That’s a tidy sum and might pay your rent and groceries for a while. . . but that’s where the differences come in. The way Austen lived, she barely needed a thousand pounds a year to have servants and a carriage. Bingley was considered exceedingly wealthy at 5000£–but if we assume that’s 250,000£ in today’s earnings—here in Southern California, you certainly wouldn’t have several mansions and servants by the dozen.
So even though 600£ sounds meager to us, it was a very healthy sum for Jane.
My heroine wants to use her income for a tutor for her nephew, and in Regency terms, a good one might cost 100£ a year. If she rents her house out, quite possibly for 25£ for six months, and earns another 25£ over the cost of publication, she’s half way there! And looking at it in terms of Austen earning 600£ for four novels, that’s 125£ a book, so she was paid more than a good male tutor. All right, Jane!
And in case any you haven’t read my Rita-nominated humorous Regency historical romance Wicked Wyckerly, it should be on sale for free or 99c at all your favorite retailers this week, knock wood and the creek don’t rise.