Victorian novels in literary periodicals

Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, as serialized in The Cornhill

One intriguing aspect of 19th century British fiction is that many novels were published in serial form before they appeared in book form. Literary luminaries such as George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Wilkie Collins published their work in literary magazines, and Charles Dickens pioneered the publication of novels in stand-alone parts. Serializing novels gave the author an additional venue for developing an audience for their work and for gaining income from their writing.

For much of the 19th century, British book publishers sold novels at very high prices – a guinea and a half (31 shillings and 6 pence) per title, the equivalent of a week’s salary for a highly-paid, skilled worker in London. In terms of modern buying power, a guinea and a half approximates today’s publisher’s list price  for three or four new hardback novels. Imagine paying the total list price for hardback editions of the entire Twilight series, but for only a single book in the series.

The first printed edition of a 19th-century novel would be quite small; print runs for novels seldom exceeded 1,000-1,250 copies. If a book became popular enough, its publisher might reissue it in a one-volume edition at lower prices. Reprinted novels usually ran to about 5 shillings, which was still a bit of a luxury for working and middle-class families; at the beginning of the Victorian period, 5 shillings would also purchase 5 lbs. of butter or 10 lbs. of meat.

Given the high cost of books, many more readers could afford to access novels through serialized versions. For example, when Dickens’ novels were issued in monthly parts, each part cost one or two shillings. Even though the total price of the entire novel amounted to 20 shillings, the cost of the printed text was spread out in small increments over time and was much more affordable to readers with lower incomes.  Subscribing to a literary journal was also much more cost-effective than buying a full novel. Literary journals like the Cornhill cost one shilling per month, and would often serialized several novels at once, printing them a few chapters at a time in each issue.  So for a year’s subscription, readers could get the text of multiple full-length novels throughout the year, along with short stories, poems, and nonfiction articles which also appeared in the journal.

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