TUMBY BAY - Herman Melville (1819-91) published his famous novel, 'Moby Dick', in 1851. Sales were very slow.
The novel was out of print during the last four years of his life, having sold 2,300 copies in its first 18 months and an average of 27 copies a year for the next 34 years for a total of 3,215 copies.
Melville was broke when he died, but since his death countless millions of copies of the book have been sold. Dozens of films and television series based on the book have also been produced.
The most popular was the John Huston film made in 1956 starring Gregory Peck. The film grossed US$5.2 million, which in today’s money is about US$52 million (K180 million).
The wealth subsequently generated for everyone except Melville is inestimable but must be in the billions of dollars.
Melville wasn’t the only famous writer to die in poverty. Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, Oscar Wilde and many others died in penury.
Book publishing is essentially a commercial activity. In most cases the desired outcome for a publisher is to make money out of the books they publish. Very few publish books on their literary merit alone.
Publishers are essentially gamblers in the capitalist tradition. They weigh up the odds of making money out of a book and, if it looks possible, they take the risk.
If the bet comes off they might get their money back, make a handsome profit or on some occasions make a huge profit.
Of those huge profits a few lucky writers might also become rich. Nowhere near as rich as the publishers, but rich nevertheless.
Since the advent of movies the profit from a bestselling book has been enhanced substantially. So ubiquitous is this that modern writers often write in what is recognised as a cinematic style.
Melville and some of those other writers who died in poverty at least had the good fortune of finding a publisher.
Other famous writers had a lot of trouble getting their first books published. They often had to resort to doing it themselves by raising the funds to pay a printer.
The list of famous writers who self-published or contributed their own money in one way or another to get their books published is very long and includes such notables as Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Alexander Dumas, TS Eliot, Zane Grey, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and Leo Tolstoy; not to mention modern authors like Stephen King and James Patterson.
Self-publishing has always been disparaged in the publishing world and there is no doubt that a lot of awful books have been produced this way. On the other hand, as my list indicated, some very influential writers have used the process.
It is, of course, in the interests of traditional publishers to demean self-published books. Self-publishing, if done right, cuts out the middleman, which is, of course, the publisher.
In this digital age, when self-publishing is so easy and inexpensive, quite a few famous writers have joined the club.
Stephen King, whose net worth is about US$400 million, now self-publishes digital books while still using traditional publishers for others. His main reason for publishing himself is to retain the integrity of his work.
Ebooks may not have set the publishing world on fire as originally predicted but the spinoff of digital print-on-demand publishing is having a major impact.
Some self-published writers now make in excess of US$400,000 a year from their books. This must be exasperating for many traditional publishers, especially the smaller, independent ones.
It has also had an impact on re-sellers of traditionally published books. Bookshops all over the world are closing their doors in the wake of the digital publishing revolution.
That many writers are now reaping the benefits of their hard work instead of the big publishers and booksellers would have cheered up Herman Melville no end I suspect.