When I was going to school, you could not escape without reading at least one of Charles Dickens twelve novels. Over the course of high school and college, I was assigned David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities.
If you missed Dickens in school you can still get a dose of him every year at Christmas. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is read in public somewhere every year or shown on TV or at the movies.
I love Dickens the author. But I’m even more fascinated by Dickens, the first Information Entrepreneur.
Dickens as Information Entrepreneur
In our day, Information Entrepreneurs use the technology of the web and social media. They develop new, innovative ways to sell their information products. And they leverage their success in one area to create success in another. Dickens did all of that, and he did it 150 years ago.
Riding the Technology Wave
Dickens rode a different technology wave. There were lots of technological advances that affected publishing in his day, but the most important was transportation.
New roads made rapid travel by coach possible and coaches could carry publications to distant distributors. It was the publishing supply chain, circa 1830. Soon railroads were speeding things up even more.
Several publishers, including Chapman & Hall seized the opportunity to increase circulation by adding distant markets. Like most publishers of the time, they produced collections of cartoons, with captions. They hired Dickens to write captions.
Creating a New Product Offering
Dickens suggested that a story would be more compelling than just pictures. He said that he could write a bit each month and end with a hook guaranteed to generate interest in the next issue. That was a new concept. It was the first time that novels had ever been published in serial form.
For subscribers, it was like buying a novel on the installment plan. Issues were priced at one shilling, a price that even underpaid Bob Cratchit could afford. Each booklet also had pages of ads at the front that helped the publishers (and Dickens) make money. Shortly after Queen Victoria was crowned in 1836, circulation of Dickens’ first novel, Pickwick Papers, reached 40,000 per installment.
Dickens listed to his readers and modified his work based on their suggestions. When readers wrote that they liked the character of Sam Weller, Dickens gave him a more prominent and more important role in Pickwick Papers.
Creating Multiple Revenue Streams
The subscription income was good, but Dickens figured out how to sell his material three times. The serial version was first. Then, when the novel was finished, people clamored for a complete edition. That means that many of them bought the novel twice. There was one more way.
Once they had bought a complete novel, they didn’t need the subscription issues they had bought. Dickens hired teams of people to go around to subscribers and pick up their old serial versions. People were quite happy to dispose of the serial version. Dickens then had those serial issues re-assembled into an “Original Collector’s Version” and sold at a premium price.
Dickens sold his work in ways that no author had done before. But he also sold himself by giving public readings of his work and charging admission. So, in addition to being a great author and a smart entrepreneur, Dickens was also the first celebrity author.