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David Hines [userpic]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's word rate

January 11th, 2010 (08:38 pm)
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I happened to pick up W.S. Baring-Gould's ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES over lunch, and lemme tell you, it is danged interesting to contemplate the introduction when you have ready access to an iPhone with an inflation calculator app, because W.S. Baring-Gould tells you how much money Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made. Even better, Baring-Gould generously translates these prices into their equivalents in the corresponding years' dollars. This means that I can plug Doyle's earnings into my iPhone and figure out how he was doing, as a doctor and as a writer. In case I haven't mentioned it, the future is awesome.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in 1859 and entered Edinburgh University in 1876. You could just jump in and get a medical degree as a BA back then, and work with that while you went on for your doctorate. In between bits of schooling, he helped out doctors and even took a medical job on a whaling ship. He got his Bachelor of Medicine in 1881 and went into practice, becoming an MD in 1885. As a doctor, his best year made him 300 pounds, or $1500. That's the equivalent of around $35,000 in 2009 dollars. Not so hot. One year he was doing so badly that when he submitted his tax form it was returned with the words "Most Unsatisfactory" scrawled on it. Doyle wrote "I quite agree" underneath and sent it back.

He did better as a writer. He sold his first story, "The Mystery of Sassassa Valley," to CHAMBER'S JOURNAL in 1879, for three pounds three shillings, the then equivalent of $15.75 ($358.72 in 2009). His novel A STUDY IN SCARLET, the first Sherlock Holmes story, was rejected all over the place before selling to Ward, Lock, & Co., in 1886 for 25 pounds, then $125, which would be $2,951.39 in 2009 dollars. A footnote reports that Sir Arthur's son Adrian Conan Doyle would recall that Sir Arthur, who had sold the copyright to the story as a condition of publication -- that is, he got no royalties, just a flat fee -- eventually had to pay two hundred times the original price of sale to get the copyright to that one story back. He had the money by then, though. Did he ever.

"A Study In Scarlet" was published in BEETON'S CHRISTMAS ANNUAL in 1887. It sold for a shilling. Good luck finding a copy. In 1888, the novel was republished on its own by Ward, Lock, & Co., and *that* edition is even scarcer than the Beeton's. Anyway, the American editor of LIPPINCOTT'S MAGAZINE read it and decided to commission a sequel. He invited Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to dinner at a London restaurant with the editor and another writer he was trying to court, and during the course of the evening Sir Arthur agreed to another Sherlock Holmes novel and he went home and wrote THE SIGN OF THE FOUR, and the other writer, who was Oscar Wilde, said, "Oh, yeah, sure, I'll give you a short novel," and he went home and scribbled out THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. Baring-Gould and perhaps history are silent on what they had for dinner, but if anybody finds out I swear to God I will eat it three meals a day.

(Baring-Gould does report that "Conan Doyle rather heavily recorded in his diary that he thought Wilde must be mad." Seriously, people: if I ever get a TARDIS, I am going back to that night and I am going to that restaurant and I am going to sit at the next table and eavesdrop.)

Back to money. THE SIGN OF THE FOUR didn't make a critical splash, but 1891 rolled around and Sir Arthur got a hot new idea: how about doing a continuing series of short stories based on his central characters? Baring-Gould says, and I find this amazing and borderline unbelievable -- ("what?! that CAN'T be right!") -- that Sir Arthur was the first person to think of doing this who wrote in English. The Strand Magazine liked the first story enough to buy six of them for 195 pounds, then $1050 (the 2009 equivalent: $24,791.67). The Strand did so well on the stories that they contracted for six more, and then asked for another twelve for 1892. Sir Arthur was now tired of Holmes, because "He takes my mind from better things," and said he would only do another twelve stories if THE STRAND paid him a thousand pounds. That was then five thousand dollars. The 2009 equivalent is $118,055.55.

Sir Arthur was bluffing. He figured there was no way THE STRAND would pony up.

They gave him the money. Close to $120,000 for twelve short stories.

I don't know how much Doyle made on THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and the stories collected as THE RETURN, but I imagine he did even better. And remember, with the exception of A STUDY IN SCARLET, which he actually did the worst on, these figures are all for first publication.

Let's break this down a little.

A STUDY IN SCARLET sold for (the equivalent of) $2,951.39 and ran 43,704 words. Six and three-quarters cents a word. SFWA rates are five cents a word.

I don't know what Doyle got for THE SIGN OF THE FOUR.

The first twelve short stories ran 105,347 words. The first six contracted Strand adventures -- "A Scandal in Bohemia" through "The Man With the Twisted Lip" -- sold for the equivalent of $24,791.67 and ran 51,253 words. The second six contracted Strand Adventures -- "The Blue Carbuncle" through "The Copper Beeches" -- ran 54,094 words, but I don't know what Doyle got for them. At the least, he would have got the same amount as his previous contract, so let's play conservatively and assume the per-word rate for the first six stories holds for all twelve, which means he got at least the present-day equivalent of forty-eight cents per word. Dude octupled his rate by going from the novel to short story format.

Writers facing the modern-day short story market, wrap your head around that one.

The second twelve Holmes stories -- the thousand-pound contract -- encompass "Silver Blaze" through "The Final Problem," and those stories ran 88,353 words. (Close to 17000 words less, average around 1400 words less per story -- y'think Sir Arthur was getting tired of the gig?) But they sold for $118,055.55. That's a rate north of $1.33 per word.

At this point, faced with terrifying prosperity, making the equivalent of six figures selling twelve short stories a year, with a guaranteed market and a rabid audience of avid readers, being in sole ownership of a literary property that was the equivalent of a cow that shits solid gold, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did the logical thing: he took that cow behind the woodshed, and shot it.

Lemme tell you people: you think it's frustrating being a BUFFY fan, or a SPN fan, or a STARGATE fan, or whatever the hell you're a fan of? Well, imagine that it's December 1893, there's no internet, and you're a fan of *Sir Arthur Conan Fucking Doyle.*


Posted by: Andrew Lambdin-Abraham (kd5mdk)
Posted at: January 12th, 2010 03:50 am (UTC)

How much did he make for The White Company and Sir Nigel, do we know?

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: January 12th, 2010 03:58 am (UTC)

*Somebody* probably does, but I don't.

Posted by: Zornhau (zornhau)
Posted at: January 12th, 2010 09:01 am (UTC)
Baring-Gould rocks!

He wrote widely on the occult, superstition, mythological beasties etc. His books are still very readable.

Posted by: ugg_cardy_boots (ugg_cardy_boots)
Posted at: June 27th, 2010 10:22 am (UTC)
Re: Baring-Gould rocks!

I need to retweet this to my twitter.

Posted by: bibliofilen (bibliofilen)
Posted at: January 12th, 2010 09:29 am (UTC)

Dickens wrote his novels a chapter a time for the papers. Just like modern day TV-series with people wondering what would happen to little Dorrit et all. So Baring-Gould lied.

I wonder what Wilde's impression of Doyle was.

Posted by: John C Fiala (jcfiala)
Posted at: January 12th, 2010 03:09 pm (UTC)

That's not what Baring-Gould was describing. He was describing taking characters from a novel, and spinning them off into a series of short stories... not writing a novel chapter by chapter and releasing them one at a time.

Posted by: rodlox (rodlox)
Posted at: January 12th, 2010 09:56 am (UTC)
going to hug

>Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did the logical thing: he took that cow behind the woodshed, and shot it.
dear lord, its no wonder there were mass protests* that ended with Doyle bringing Holmes back to life.

* = I forget the exact word, but that's close enough, given that it was a feeling shared by his readership across the globe.

Posted by: abigail_n (abigail_n)
Posted at: January 12th, 2010 07:36 pm (UTC)

To be fair, Conan Doyle waited nearly a decade before bringing Holmes back (and even then, he first wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, which takes place before Holmes's death, and only later resurrected him). So it's not as if the slavering hordes overpowered him, though I'm sure he must have gotten mighty tired of being asked whether he was bringing the character back.

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