Original contract for Moby-Dick

Lowering the Bar has a copy of Herman Meville's publishing contract for Moby-Dick, made 161 years ago between Harper and Brothers of the city of New York, Publishers and Melville. Melville got 50% of the profits (which seems fishy to me, given that the publisher has near-total leeway in accounting for its expenses-before-profit on the book), which apparently amounted to $556.37 (~$16K in inflation adjusted 2012 dollars).

HarperCollins posted this on October 18, which was the 161st anniversary of that certain work entitled "The Whale" but commonly known as "Moby Dick." The contract provided that the said Herman Melville would get half the net profits from the sale of said book in the United States for the next seven years, although once the publisher had recovered the cost of the plates used to print it, Melville could have the terms changed so he would get a "sum certain" for each copy sold.

There She Blows! 'Tis the Contract for Moby Dick!


    1. Quite possible that the publishers thought that Moby Dick was the insane ramblings of a lunatic and might not sell well.  It is rather experimental in its approach to storytelling.

      1. Guess I could have RTFA:

        “Half the net profits” sounds like a pretty good deal these days, and maybe it was then, too, but sadly Moby Dick did not sell very well during Melville’s lifetime. Melville’s first two books sold well, but it was mostly downhill from there. According to this source, Melville earned a grand total of $556.37 (less than $16,000 in today’s dollars) for the U.S. edition of Moby Dick (3,215 copies sold). And I assume that’s over the seven-year duration of the contract above. He earned another $700 or so from selling the copyright for use in the UK, but gradually publishers lost interest in his work and he ended up working as a customs inspector.

        So, the publishers were generous, the buying public less so.

  1. That’s interesting. Most of the contract concerns the metal stereotype plates from which the book is printed. They’re as much a valuable property as the work itself. The plates already exist and are owned by a third party — some kind of story there. Once their cost has been amortized, Melville gets to renegotiate his royalties. At the end of the seven-year period of the contract, Melville will own the stereotype plates.

    Publishing books was much more difficult and expensive than it is now.   Every page had to be hand-set in metal type, put into a page form, and tightened up until it was effectively a solid object. A mold was then made of the page of raised metal type, and that mold was used to cast the “stereotype”: a sheet of metal with raised letters on one side, which was bolted to the rollers of the printing press. Publishers printed stacks of extra unbound pages when the book was printed, to save having to set up the plates on the press again if additional copies were needed.

    Distributing and selling the book was another huge task. Bookstores were few. Books were expensive. Not many titles got published. It was another world.

    In some ways it wasn’t all that different, though. Last time we were at the Peabody Museum, they had a sea story published around that same time on display in a glass case. Since its back cover was missing, you could see the end of the tale, where the author exhorted his readers to write to the publisher and ask for more books in the series, so they could read his continuation of the story.

  2. What I’d really like to know is how much Harper Collins’ decision to publish the book was influenced by the fact that the plates for it already existed. 

  3. Wha….was the concept of ‘Hollywood accounting’ not known at the time, or something? I mean, if someone offers you *half* of *net* profits, don’t your eyebrows kinda go up all suspicious-like?

    It just seems like it would be so easy to end up getting screwed with a deal that sounds really good if you have no clue how these things work.

  4. Regarding that $556. At the time, 1851, a good farm could be bought for a few hundred dollars, $1 to $2 an acre, wages in factories got you $250 a year, so the valuation of 16k$ at present is really misleading. 
    $556 was a helluva slug of money. The U.S. GDP was about $2.5B in 1851 compared to $15.5T today. Think proportionality.

    1. About what I was going to say; it seems like a screw-job to us, today (in the context of many of today’s writers getting screwed), but history is a funny thing.  A lot less money rattling around in the old days, a lot more work to publish something, a lot fewer people who were literate.  Sheesh.  Today, people forget that a standard education which taught you how to properly read didn’t show up until the 1880’s, and even if you could read, the brutal math of necessity put books way below food, clothing and a roof over your head.

      By the end of the 19th century, a wonderful confluence of factors in printing technology, education and expendable income resulted in a renaissance for “Moby Dick.”  Melville just didn’t live long enough to reap the benefits of the work of his youth.harry appenzeller’s point is equally apt; I’m betting Melville was a smart enough guy to be grateful for the windfall that the $556 was, and could (pun intended) read the writing on the wall.  Either that, or Mrs. Melville saw that he would be a lot more successful in another career.  “C’mon Hermy,” she probably coo’ed to him while darning some socks, “we’ve got a kid on the way, and daddy knows someone in the Customs office.”

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