RECORD: Murray, John. 1909. Darwin and his publisher John Murray. Science progress in the twentieth century: a quarterly journal of scientific work & thought 3: 537-542.

[page] 537

Darwin and his publisher John Murray


The relations between authors and publishers have long formed the subject of satire and ridicule in prose and verse. During the past twenty years, however, the appearance of the memoirs of several of the leading publishers has shown that they, as a class, and as individuals, are not more deeply tainted by original sin than are the authors; and that cordial relations have been the rule, disputes the rare exception.

I have been asked to write a short account of the dealings of my father with Charles Darwin, and I assent with the less hesitation because it seems to me that those dealings exhibit a type of what such an association should be creditable to both parties as gentlemen and men of business. Everything is discussed openly and frankly between them; critical questions are asked and answered without reserve, and yet – or perhaps I should say, in consequence of this – there is no trace of friction or of ill-humour, and no word of discourtesy is to be found in the whole correspondence.

Darwin's letters to my father, from the year 1845 till within a few weeks of his death in 1882, lie before me now, bound in a stout volume; and when I spoke about them to a distinguished man of letters a few days ago, he said: "If you can find, in all those letters, one containing an ill-natured remark, it is worth a considerable sum of money."

It very often falls to the lot of a publisher not only to superintend the more or less mechanical processes of producing a book, but also to take a considerable part in the editing, for which he may not receive thanks, according to the temperament and courtesy of the author. In the case of Darwin's works my father's part was mainly confined to the mechanical processes, and yet at every stage there came the kindly, considerate, never forgotten word of thanks; and those who have smarted under the occasional omission of such courtesies can most highly appreciate the ready and ungrudging concession of them.

My father was introduced to Darwin by Sir Charles Lyell, who was a personal friend of both and whose books he had published, and the introduction led to business relations in the following manner.

Darwin had originally brought out his "Journal and Researches" in the year 1840 in conjunction with the "Narratives of the Surveying Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle," by publisher, but he only had the rights for the joint work, and as Darwin had in 1845 received no remuneration for his share of it, he was anxious to publish his journal separately, and came to consult my father, who at once agreed to include it in his "Home and Colonial Library."

Darwin writes to him:

I write now to ask whether you would so far greatly oblige me as to negotiate with Mr. Colburn, which I particularly dislike and should do badly. If you have any great objection I must write myself, and I would take the liberty of showing you my letter.... As I have never received one penny from Mr. Colburn, I have some claim on him, and I think mere shame would prevent him being rigid with me, though that is a weak hold on such a man.

This is the nearest approach to a "hard saying" that I have discovered among all the letters, and yet it is one which can hardly be brought within that definition.

The Journal was accordingly published in 1845, forming three parts of the Home and Colonial Series, and in about three years 7,000 copies were sold. Even the presentation of the customary "author's copies" called forth the following kind reply:

I must write to thank you for your really magnificent present of the twelve copies. I assure you I think I have not the smallest claims for them, after your other liberality.

Fourteen years now elapsed before Darwin again approached my father about the publication of a book; but in March 1859 he consulted him about a work which he had just completed. So greatly was my father impressed by the importance of this proposal, that he wrote on April 1:

I have no hesitation in swerving from my usual routine and in stating at once, even without seeing the MS., that I shall be most happy to publish it on the same terms as Sir Charles Lyell's books.

This book was the famous Origin of Species; but Darwin was not satisfied with a mere blind acceptance, and on April 5 wrote:

I send by this post the first 3 chapters. If you have patience to read all chap.I., I honestly think that you will have a fair notion of the whole book. It may be conceit, but I believe the subject will interest the public, and I am sure that the views are original. If you think otherwise, I must repeat my request that you will freely reject my work. I shall be a little disappointed: I shall be in no way injured.

This note of modest confidence is struck in regard to all his works up to the last, and I have often heard my father quote it as an admirable contrast to the young author who "knows that his book is bound to make a sensation" at once, and sell by tens of thousands; and I was reminded of it last week, when a writer offered me a pamphlet on an historical subject "which was sure to sell by millions very quickly."

By June the revision of proofs was in full swing, and Darwin wrote:

I remember writing to you that I thought there would be not much corrections. I honestly wrote what I thought, but was most grievously mistaken. I find the style incredibly bad, and most difficult to make clear and smooth. I am extremely sorry to say, on account of expense and loss of time for me, that the corrections are VERY heavy-as heavy as possible .... How I can have written so badly is inconceivable.

My father wrote some encouraging words, and asked to be allowed to show the proofs to Sir Charles Lyell. The reply was:

I am quite delighted at all you say and propose. Pray send the sheets to Lyell. Unfortunately, the part most likely to be interesting to him is not ready.... With hearty thanks, etc.

The cost of corrections certainly did prove unusually heavy, and, on sending the author an early copy, my father reported the matter, but expressed his intention of bearing the whole cost and charging no part of it to the author. The reply came in due course:

I have received your kind note and the copy. I am infinitely pleased and proud at the appearance of my child. You are really too generous to me about the scandalously heavy corrections. Are you not really acting unjustly towards yourself?

In those days, when fewer books were published and the average life of those that did appear was longer than at present, it was the general custom for each of the leading publishers to hold a "Sale Dinner" in November, to which all the principal booksellers were invited. The new books of the season were then introduced to them, and offered on specially favourable terms, to enable them to purchase stock for the ensuing six months or so. Such methods of business are impossible in these days of high pressure; and the Coffee-house Sales have almost passed out of memory.

In November 1859 the Origin of Species was thus first offered to the trade, and orders for 1,493 copies were there and then received. The first edition consisted of 1,250 copies (a large number for a new book of a comparatively little known writer in those days), and consequently a reprint had to be ordered at once.

On November 24, 1859, Darwin writes: "I am astounded at your news of the sale," and immediately set to work to make a few necessary corrections.

On December 5, 1859, he adds:

I have made some few corrections, and have inserted a capital sentence from the Rev. C. Kingsley in answer to any one who may, as many will, say that my book is irreligious.

P.S. I have omitted what I particularly wished to say, namely to thank you sincerely for the exertions which you must have taken to sell my volume so promptly. It will have obviously an important effect in getting my notions known.

In July 1860 appeared the, now famous, article in the Quarterly, by Samuel Wilberforce, on the Origin of Species; and the author's first comment on it was:

The article on the Origin seems to me very clever, and I am quizzed splendidly. I really believe that I enjoyed it as much as if I had not been the unfortunate butt. There is hardly any malice in it, which is wonderful considering the source whence many of the suggestions come.

The reputation of the Origin was now firmly established in spite of the review in the Edinburgh, in which "I am thrashed in every possible way to the full extent of my bitterest opposing," and it is unnecessary for me to enter into any further record of new and amended editions, which were called for in rapid succession, as all this is recorded in the Life and Letters. Nor will I dwell on the facts concerning the publication of the Climbing Plants and the Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, except to note that each was accompanied by the same modest appreciation of his own work on the part of the author, and the same courtesy in approaching his publisher.

We now come to the Descent of Man. Incomplete copies of this work were shown at the Sale Dinner in 1870, and 1,939 were ordered by the trade, but the book was not ready for publication till March 1871. The first edition of 2,500, as well as two further editions of 2,000 each, were sold out before the end of that year.

Capital review in the Saturday R. (writes Darwin), good notice in Pall Mall, and contemptuous as usual in Athenaeum: but how dull and ignorant a man the writer of the last article must be!

In March 1871 he was "astonished at the sale of his book."

The Expression of the Emotions depended more than any of the other books on the illustrations; but in 1872 the art of photographic reproduction was in its infancy, and the greatest difficulty was experienced in obtaining good impressions of the pictures. Had the facilities which now exist been available then, the book might have been greatly improved, but the original photographs have been lost or have perished, and the work remains as it first appeared. On November 11, 1872, we read, "I am quite delighted, and more astonished than you can be, at the sale of the Expression book." Seven thousand copies were sold in the first year.

A reference to one more book shall be my last. One day, early in 1881, I was with my father in his room, when Mr. Darwin came in, and after some conversation, said: "Mr. Murray, I have brought you another book. It represents a good many years of hard work, and has proved of great interest to me, but I doubt very much whether it will interest the public, as the subject is not an attractive one. It is Earthworms."

Of this book 3,079 copies were sold at the dinner in November, and within a year seven editions had been called for.

I was told a few days ago by a friend, that he was in a provincial town in England when Darwin's name was mentioned.

"Oh," said a local man who was present, "is not he the author who writes about Earthworms?" This would seem to show that the book so modestly introduced had reached quarters into which Darwin's world-wide fame had not penetrated.

Incidentally, Darwin's works, and especially the Origin of Species, afford a telling illustration of one of the anomalies of our copyright law. The copyright of the first edition of the Origin of Species expired in 1901, and any one was then at liberty to reprint this edition. But Darwin himself had expressly said that he regarded it as imperfect, and did not wish it to be taken as representing his views.

The later editions, with their successive corrections and improvements, form in many respects a different book, and yet the imperfect book is being offered to the public without any clear statement of this discrepancy. This is perfectly legal, and no one can complain; but as a question of ethics it is somewhat difficult to solve.

I hope, if a new Copyright Bill is ever drafted, that, in justice to distinguished authors, this point will receive full consideration.

The system on which Mr. Darwin preferred to be remunerated for his books was to have an estimate made of each edition as it was printed, and to have his share of prospective profits paid him in anticipation. This is an unusual method of payment, and one which involves obvious disadvantages, if for no other reason because no one can tell exactly beforehand what an edition will produce, as there are several unknown factors in the calculation.

In the case of a disagreeable or suspicious man such a system would open the door to endless bickerings and friction; but though Mr. Darwin constantly inquired into details – whether of these estimates of payment, or of quality of paper or bindings, or other questions connected with the publication of his books – no angry or irritable word ever seems to have passed between him and his publisher. He did not blindly accept facts and figures which came before him; he investigated them all, and questioned where he was in doubt; but his questioning was always that of frankness and courtesy.

O si sic Omnes!

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