|Dickens in his study at Gad's Hill|
A commenter on one of my recent posts wrote: “Paid by the word, that was done in my youth when I wrote a newspaper column. Are you saying that it wasn't done in Dickens' time, or that it was not done with Dickens?”
The idea of Dickens being paid by the word may be based on misunderstandings about his career as well as the 21st century view of his prose style.
Dickens started out as a freelance reporter, and these men were penny-a-liners, often viewed as hacks. He was soon hired, though, for a regular salary.
His fiction followed a different route. For his first few published fictional pieces—which eventually became part of Sketches by Boz—his only pay was the delight of seeing his work in print. But not long thereafter he was paid an extra two guineas a week for these sketches.
He received one hundred pounds for the copyright to the Sketches by Boz printed to that point, then £100 for the second edition, then £150 “for a new volume of previously uncollected sketches.” For The Pickwick Papers, he was to provide 1-1/2 sheets (16 pages of finished product) per month at 9 guineas per sheet. The rates soon went up.
By the 1840s, he received an advance of £1800 for American Notes. In 1863, “he proposed that [his publishers] pay him £6000 for the half copyright throughout and outright" for Our Mutual Friend.
As to his verbosity: We 21st C authors are expected step briskly into the story, and to keep digressions and subplots to a bare minimum. Not at all the case in his time. Readers had longer attention spans; they wanted big stories and lots of detail. But he told big stories and conveyed detail in a lively way, and his style seemed fresh and vibrant and modern to his readers. His early newspaper pieces sometimes make fun of the over-ornate style of the time—and it’s a joke he uses again and again in his fiction, especially in portraying hypocrites, humbugs, and windbags.
While there seem to be an infinite number of Dickens biographies, I relied for the above information on two I had close at hand, Fred Kaplan’s Dickens: A Biography, and Peter Akroyd’s Dickens.
Image courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Clicking on the caption will take you to the information page there.