A book contract and how it is fulfilled may not make the most compelling story. We tend to think of the narrative in terms of a person who writes a book, gets an agent, finds a publisher, and signs a contract. The manuscript then makes its way through an editor, copy editor, possibly a fact checker--though the use of fact checkers seems to be an expense that many publishers are refusing to pay these days--and it then finally arrives at the printers, where new problems are created. The stories we tend to enjoy hearing are about the writers' struggles, perhaps with poverty or rejection or some such thing; at least those were the types of stories that always seemed to find their way onto my desk, or bed I suppose, when I was younger and led other people to assure me that one could not become a writer without the struggle. (Talent and hard work, funny enough, seems in the minds of many to be secondary; it's the hard times that lead to the production of the great works.) How an idea is turned into a book and how a manuscript winds its way toward the printer and into the hands of readers, however, can be interesting in itself. Take the story of John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Milton began thinking about writing an epic as early as the summer of 1628, when he was only 19, and the following year, about a month after his twenty-first birthday, he reaffirmed his commitment to completing such a poem. A decade later, he was still musing about his aspirations, observing that he would "some day recall in song the things of my native land, and Arthur, who carried war even into fairyland. Or I shall tell of those great-hearted champions bound in society of the Round Table, and (O may the Spirit be in me!) I shall break the Saxon phalanxes with British war." In 1640 Milton had apparently begun work on such a poem, one that would have covered the history of Britain from the arrival of Brutus, who like Aeneas was a Trojan exile, to the times of Arthur.
His enthusiasm for writing an Arthurian epic, however, was soured by its almost universally acknowledged fictional character as well as its value for the royalist cause both during the Interregnum and before. Indeed, at the start of the civil war, Milton was already debating whether his great poem should be Biblical or historical. His involvement in the work of defending the parliament and later Cromwell interrupted his progress between 1642 and 1660, when Charles II took his, in Milton's view, dubious place on the English throne. Milton may have been able to begin some work on the poem in the mid- or late-1550s, when his polemical activities became less time consuming, but it was after 1660 that he was able to take up his epic aspirations in earnest, composing at night and reciting the next day to one of his daughters until 1663, according to John Aubrey--who is best remembered for his Brief Lives--though it apparently took another two years to clean up the work and prepare a final manuscript, which was given to Thomas Ellwood, Ellwood claimed in The History of the Life of Thomas Ellwood (1714).
Milton signed an agreement with a printer, Samuel Symmons, to produce Paradise Lost on April 27, 1667 and it was entered in the Stationers' Register on August 20, 1667. The printing likely took place in the fall, but the books history does not end there. Not only did Milton rework the ten-book version that was printed in 1667 into a twelve-book version that became available in 1674, turning Books VII and X into two separate books, but the procedure Symmons followed to fulfill the agreement he had signed creates some oddities in the print-run of the first edition. Symmons did not print all the books at once; he printed them in five or six installments, some dated 1667, some 1668, and some 1669, all of them with variations in the text as well as the title page. (Sometimes, for example, Milton's complete name appears and other times only his initials or given.) The result is that the so-called first edition was released over a period of two years, after which Milton received his second payment of five pound, and textual editors and book collectors can now indulge in all sorts of fun or folly, depending on whom you ask.
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