Was Dickens Really Paid By The Word?

The popular myth that Dickens's novels are all so long because he was “paid by the word” is not really accurate. Dickens was not paid by the word. Rather, he was paid by installment.

Dickens published his novels in serial form. That is to say, the novels appeared serially, or over a period of many weeks or months (much as a modern-day soap opera appears daily, or a modern sit-com appears weekly). Most of the novels, including Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, appeared in monthly parts following a very specific formula developed by Dickens and his publishers with the release of Dickens's first full-length novel The Pickwick Papers (1836 – 37). The Pickwick Papers appeared in 20 parts over a period of 19 months. (The last part was a “double issue” that included parts 19 and 20). Each part contained 32 pages of letter press, 2 illustrations, various advertisements, and came wrapped in a flimsy green-paper front and back cover. The price for each part was one shilling (except for the last "double issue," which was two). This price was very cheap compared to the standard price of a book, which at the time was 31 shillings 6 pence.

Dickens's 20-part formula was successful for a number or reasons: each monthly number created a demand for the next since the public, often enamored of Dickens's latest inventions, eagerly awaited the publication of a new part; the publishers, who earned profits from the sale of numbers each month, could partially recover their expenses for one issue before publishing the next; and the author himself, who received payment each time he produced 32 pages of text (and not necessarily a certain number of words), did not have to wait until the book was completed to receive payment. It was largely on the strength of his generous monthly stipend for The Pickwick Papers that Dickens was able to marry Catherine Hogarth in 1836.

For more information on Dickens and serial publication, see “The Composition, Publication, and Reception of Our Mutual Friend” on the Our Mutual Friend Scholarly Pages.

You can also watch this video from Peter Harrington Gallery, London, which provides a great overview of the various formats and bindings of Dickens's works throughout his career.