December 19, 2013

Herman Melville’s book sales in his lifetime


Guess we should've named the blog after this one.

Guess we should’ve named the blog after this one.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that Herman Melville‘s bestselling book during his lifetime was that classic we all studied in school: Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. You remember the story, right? Tommo and Toby travel to the island of Nukuheva, fall in with the Typee tribe, and learn that even though the natives are sort of cannibals, they’re more honest than the Europeans… Not ringing a bell?

It’s commonly known that Melville’s best-known works didn’t exactly fly off the shelves while he was alive, but there’s something about reading the sales numbers, published by G. Thomas Tanselle in “The Sales of Melville’s Books,” that makes the whole thing more real. (The original article is not available online, but his literary earnings are also reported by

The English edition of The Whale, Or Moby-Dick, published October 18, had an initial print quantity of 500. The print runs for Mardi and White-Jacket were twice that; Redburn fell in the middle at 750 copies. Moby-Dick was published in the U.S. one month later, with a first printing of 2,915 copies. The first printing of Melville’s other three books with Harper & Brothers had been a thousand more. What’s more, a fire at Harpers in 1853 destroyed all but sixty of the original copies.

The numbers in this chart don’t reflect the cost of Melville’s poetry, which was published at the author’s expense, or his magazine work. The records for Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, and The Confidence-Man are incomplete, and could not be factored into the total. In case you’re puzzled by the negative numbers, Battle-Pieces did not make a profit, and this chart reflects Melville’s half of the production costs.



		Copies       	            Copies       	        Total       Total
Title		Sold	     Earnings	    Sold	 Earnings (a)   Sales       Earnings
Typee		9,598	     1,138.61	    6,722	   708.40	16,320	    1,847.01

Omoo		7,403	     1,719.78	    5,932	   644.00	13,335	    2,363.78

Mardi		2,900	       740.88	    1,000	   970.65	 3,900      1,711.53

Redburn		4,718	       683.57	      750	   484.00	 5,468	    1,167.57

White-Jacket	4,922	       969.44	    1,000	   968.00	 5,922	    1,937.44

Moby-Dick	3,215	       556.37	      500	   703.08	 3,715	    1,259.45

Pierre		1,821	       157.75	      --	      --	 1,821	      157.75

Battle-Pieces	  471	     - 229.71 (b)     --	      --	   471	    - 229.71
	       ------	     --------	   ------	 --------	------	   ---------
TOTALS	       35,048	     5,736.69 	   15,905	 4,478.13       50,953	   10,214.82

After his death, there was a short period of renewed interest in his work. Between 1893 and 1898, four of Melville’s most popular books sold 7,815 copies for the United States Book Company, a total of $379.06, and between 1901 and 1906, Dana Estes & Co. sold another 2,357, for a total of $117.85.

As Melville wrote in Pierre, “Oh, who shall reveal the horrors of poverty in authorship that is high?” (I believe the answer is you, dear sir.)


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.