How Dickens bagged the Christmas book market

It’s a double celebration today on National Go Caroling Day and it’s the type of content connection that book publicists love, as it concerns a wonderful literary classic.

 A Christmas Carol was published on 19 December 1843 and was an instant success with readers, selling out its initial print run of 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve. I think that all of us self-published authors and indie publishers would be happy with a result like that.  

The fact he did so without the internet, that heavily utilized medium of the modern-day author, says much about his capacity to understand, market to and engage with his potential audience. So, what did he do that was different and innovative and what can we learn? Essentially, when you distil it down, Dickens really didn’t do anything new, what he did was the basics and he did them well.

 ·       He knew his audience setting the price at a reasonable and broadly affordable 5s. to encourage the largest possible number of purchasers. His readers confirmed this decision by rushing to Victorian book stalls to buy it at every new print run.

·       His readers became key promoters of his book. By the end of the following year over 15,000 copies of A Christmas Carol had been sold, word of mouth recommendation played a huge part in this phenomenal success.

·       He secured strong endorsements and support from notable and respected individuals including Thackeray and Lord Jeffry, who sang the praises of his book. He encouraged those endorsements to be widely shared in public talks and popular journals of the day; Victorian Social Media in action.

·       Timing and excitement. Dickens knew that he had the right title publishing at the right time when he deliberately set publication date for 19 December. He made sure that the book looked beautiful too and was designed to make an ideal gift. He had been trailing the publication through his contacts in the Victorian Press and his excited reader base. He (obviously) didn’t have access to Mailchimp, Facebook or Twitter, but he built excitement and anticipation for his new novel by directly and consistently engaging with his audience.  

The irony is that given all its success in terms of sales and public adoration A Christmas Carol was not a financial success for Dickens. When Dickens received the initial receipts of production and sale from Chapman and Hall, he found that after the deductions for printing, paper, drawing and engraving, steel plates, paper for plates, colouring, binding, incidentals and advertising and commission to the publishers, the "Balance of account to Mr Dickens's credit" was a mere £137( * Source: The Guardian Books 2009)

So, the moral of the story is that it pays to also make sure you understand your real costs upfront and set your price accordingly if you are to make the most of your outstanding literary success!

 Happy caroling and in the words of Bob Cratchit himself:

"A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears.”

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