Successful Failure

Miguel de Cervantes was an inept businessman described as “a starving writer of unsuccessful dramas, poetry and finally a novel.”  Cervantes died a year after finishing Don Quixote.  He was broke and penniless and “broken in spirit.”  Don Quixote lived on to become one of the classics of world literature.

In 1843 Dickens had released a book called American Notes which flopped in England and outraged Americans.  His novel Martin Chuzzlewit was being published in installments, as was then the practice, and it was meeting with commercial and artistic indifference.  He was so broke, however, that he could not afford to stop writing the book.  He called it “the Chuzzlewit Agonies.” 

In October 1843, the idea of A Christmas Carol came to him and he wrote it very quickly.  He believed entirely in its value and he saw it as his solution to his financial problems.  He wanted to publish it as soon as possible but his publisher didn’t think much of A Christmas Carol, so Dickens paid to produce it himself using his publisher’s production facilities.  The book came out December 17 and by Christmas the entire print run (of 6,000) had sold.  That next year all kinds of pirated versions came out.  Dickens sued.  His publisher declared bankruptcy leaving him with the court costs.  When his royalties finally came he was expecting about 1,000 pounds, but it turned out to be only 230 pounds.  When he figured in the court costs (700 pounds) he had actually lost 470 pounds (about twice the yearly salary he’d earned as a reporter)

He wrote to a friend that the only thing that made it bearable was the “wonderful success of the book.”

Successful failure.  There’s a long tradition of that.

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