These are notes I made preparing a Twitter thread about the 1862 release of Les Miserables.
It’s pretty close to the original tweet thread. No formatting or reorganizing for this post – just spelling & grammar corrections.
I was surprised the first time I read events around the 1862 publication of Les Miserables.
It had more in common with my idea of a 21st-century Hollywood release than a 19th-century publication in Europe.
Hugo was very popular for other writings like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, his time in Parliament, and his positions on social injustice. He had broad appeal to the masses.
Partly because of this, he thought he should be paid more for Les Mis than any other book. He turned down an offer of more than $1.5 million in today’s dollars. A young publisher, A. Lacroix, knew he could use Hugo’s popularity and got a bank loan to purchase the rights without knowing details of the book other than being assured it was a social drama, not a political work.
They agreed to about $3.8 million. The publisher only had rights for 8 years. He also received translation rights. Hugo received the cash up front, ownership of the printing plates, and a 12% royalty (details vary but it was a very good deal for him)
Hugo was in exile and Napoleon III could censor the book in France and kill profits. So it was important that it not be a political work that offended the Emporer. Even so, Lacroix made a deal with a French publisher for rights in France to reduce his risk if it was banned.
The 1852 “International Copyright Act” was a factor Lacroix was aware of. It addressed a big problem with piracy. It also protected Belgian publishers from French censorship so it was safest to publish from Brussels.
Hugo insisted on a cheap edition for the masses as well as the typical fancy editions. There was a relatively new steam-powered printing press and paper had been getting cheaper so it was financially feasible to offer a cheap edition. There were editions published with illustrations from well-known artists. There were also plays produced around the time of publishing and merchandise such as posters and other promotions of the book and stage productions. There were also possibly figurines of the major characters. I can’t find confirmation now but it was a revenue stream at the time.
A huge publicity campaign started 6 months before publication. One reason was to drum up excitement and have the public ready to buy when the date came. The other reason was to make the public so interested in the book that the Emporer couldn’t afford to ban it.
For 6 months, posters were put up throughout Paris and other major cities. There were press releases about the upcoming publication. But a complete embargo on the text. No excerpts were sent to the press and no leaks of any text.
The novel was released in multiple parts. Part I had a simultaneous release date in multiple major European cities with translations. It sold out in Paris on the first day and did well everywhere. Critics did not like it. But the public loved it. When part II was released, people showed up with carts to buy as many copies as they could.
It was more than just a story. About 1/4 of it is essays on social and moral points that don’t contribute to any of the stories. Hugo had been outspoken against slavery, the death penalty, and other social injustices throughout his career. In addition to making a lot of money and telling a good story, it was an opportunity to make a case on many of the issues he was passionate about.
It’s easy to think we live in a unique time – both for good and bad. But the truth is that the fundamentals of society and business and consumerism and government have been pretty consistent for most of written history.
“history repeats itself” is a common saying. I don’t think it’s history repeating (fate, cycles, etc.)
I think leaders and people who want power or wealth study history. They learn what has worked in the past and they repeat the things that have led to their current goals. If we want to understand what’s going on today, it helps us to know what happened in the past.
Reports of the Les Mis publication details differ. There are different variations with chatGPT, bing, what I remember from the forward to the Rose translation, and other sources. The main source I used for this post is https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/03/23/hugo-inc.