No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money – Samuel Johnson
Charles Dickens supposedly wrote for a penny a word, which my high-school English teacher offered up as a reason why his books were so long. Just how miserable a wage was that? Even worse than it sounds.
Dickens lived in a largely deflationary era. From his birth in 1812 to his death in 1870, the pound dropped in value to £0.59, an average annual decline of 0.8% a year, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator. Publishers cut prices relentlessly to get new readers; the first penny newspaper in London appeared in 1855. As publications cut costs, they had to cut their writers’ pay as well. Sound familiar?
How poorly was Dickens paid? Converting an 1836 English penny to a 2014 penny is a bit tricky. In Dickens’ day, there were 240 pennies to the pound. (Back in Merrie Olde England, 240 silver English pennies equaled one pound of silver.) One pound in 1836 is the equivalent of £102.02 in 2014. At 240 pennies per pound, Dickens earned the modern equivalent of 43 English pennies a word, or 66 U.S. cents a word at the current conversion rate of $1.54 U.S. per pound.
The Pickwick Papers, published in serial form from March 1836 through November 1837, weighs in at about 396,000 words. Assuming the penny-a-word formulation is correct, and that one pound equaled 240 pennies, that would have been 1,650 pounds, or the equivalent of £168,333 today — $259,232 in greenbacks. Pretty good for a 26-year-old first-time author, right?
Not really. As it turns out, Dickens was paid £20 an installment for The Pickwick Papers, or £400 total. He earned no royalties. That’s equal to £40,808 pounds today, or $62,844. It’s still good money for a first-time author, but well less than a penny a word. (It’s probably closer to a farthing a word: A farthing was a quarter of a penny).
Dickens did become quite wealthy, in part because The Pickwick Papers taught him the value of owning his works and the royalties that came with them. Of course, two other factors probably helped, too: He was an incredibly hard worker, often editing and doing other work while writing at a feverish pace. And, of course, he was Charles Dickens.