What we can learn from Jane Austen and President Ulysses S. Grant about the business of book publishing: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"

History may not necessarily determine the current IP moment, but it certainly has the power to instruct. This is so, even in the most unlikely of circumstances—bringing together the publication sagas of Jane Austen and Ulysses S. Grant.

Austen and U.S. President Grant never met. Austen died in Winchester, England in 1817; Grant was born in Ohio in the U.S. in 1822. Yet there was a common denominator; both were authors. Austen was modestly successful in her lifetime, but posthumously her creative output has come to be recognized as one of the great achievement of English literature.

Grant is better known today as the commanding general of the successful Union forces in the American Civil War (1861-1865) and thereafter as the 18th President of the United States (1869-1977). Less recognized, shortly after his death in 1885, Grant’s Memoirs were published by Mark Twain to great acclaim and commercial success.

It is as authors that led this Kat to ask: what we can learn from them about how books were being commercialized in the 19th century? We find Austen, living at the dawn of industrialization and against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, having spent her entire life in central and southern England. Seventy years later, we find Grant, benefiting from transcontinental railroad and communication developments galore, a public figure of international renown.

One way to look at these changing circumstances is the observation made in connection with Oren Bracha’s book, “Owning Ideas’--
Our modern notion of owning ideas, it [the book] argues, came into being when the ideals of eighteenth-century possessive individualism at the heart of early patent and copyright were subjected to the forces and ideology of late-nineteenth-century corporate liberalism.
Ultimately, however, both Austen and Grant faced the same challenge: how to get the best publishing deal possible. The ultimate question then becomes: how different really were the publishing experiences of Austen and Grant from those of our authors and publishers in our digital, on-line, 24-7 world of the 21st century.

Jane Austen

As for Austen, let’s focus on the publication of perhaps her two best known books, “Sense and Sensibility” and "Pride and Prejudice. She finished the first version of "Pride and Prejudice" (then called “First Impressions”) in 1797. Her father (not Austen herself) sought to interest a publisher, but the offer was declined. Austen put “First Impressions” to the side and proceeded to work, inter alia, on what would become "Sense and Sensibility".

Publishing as a matter of financial imperative for Austen (and her sisters) can be dated to 1805, when their father passed away. But it was only in 1809, when she settled into quarters at Chawton, Hampshire, that Austen could focus on turning her writing into published works that would hopefully generate much needed income. In the publishing agreements that Austen reached for the two books, we find different approaches to the allocation of risk between author and publisher.

First came the publication of "Sense and Sensibility' in 1811 by Thomas Egerton of the Military Library publishing house. The deal that Austen struck (who advised her, if anyone; did she negotiate in her own name; and how much freedom to negotiate vis a vis the publisher, are not clear) was that she would pay to have the book published (the costs were one-third of the annual family income of £460). She would then pay the publisher a commission on sales of the book.

Austen earned £140 on the sale of the entire first print run (1000 copies). As seen in the photo of the title page of the first printing, Austen was not identified as the author by name but merely that the book had been written “By a Lady”).

Before the second print run of "Sense and Sensibility" had been made (indeed, at the time, the first print run of the book had not been totally sold), Austen reached agreement with Egerton on "Pride and Prejudice', which was published in early 1813.

Given Austen's uncertainty about how commercially successful "Sense and Sensibility" would be, she reached (or was forced to reach) a deal whereby Egerton undertook to pay Austen a one-off payment of £110 for full rights to publish the book, meaning all the risk for loss and profit was his alone. As for credit, she was referred to on the cover page only as "the author of 'Sense and Sensibility' ".

Egerton is calculated to have made £450 from the publication and sale of just the first two editions of the book. [Merpel notes that over 100,000 copies each year in various versions continue to be sold through the present.] As for promotion and exposure of the book, there appeared a couple of reviews, more or less favorable, and an advertisement about the book and its sales price.

Austen’s publishing experiences with Egerton still resonate today, with more than a strong resemblance to the self-publishing industry, both in traditional and e-print form. This suggests that the relationship between author and publisher, and the balance of power between them, has not, in a fundamental way, changed since Austen’s day, especially in circumstances where the author does not have the upper hand in the bargaining relationship.

Ulysses S. Grant

Seventy years fast forward, we encounter the publication of Grant’s memoirs (“Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant”). As noted, Grant had enjoyed both a stellar military career and two respectable terms as U.S. President (although his second term was marred by the Panic of 1873 and its multi-year aftermath and a spate of corruption scandals). He and his wife then embarked on a two and one-half year around-the-world tour (1877-1879), during which he met numerous world leaders, further cementing his reputation as a figure of wide international repute.

Upon their return from the grand tour, Grant engaged in various business dealings. One, however, in which his son was connected and in which Grant was heavily invested, was no more than an elaborate form of Ponzi scheme. As a result, he was left in dire straits, his wife and he facing financial desolation.

Not unlike Austen, Grant turned to publishing as a way to replenish the empty family coffers. With assistance from his friend, the author Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Grant set about to recount his life in writing, with the lion’s share devoted to his military experiences in the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War. Suffering from a throat cancer that was sapping his strength from day to day, Grant worked feverishly and managed to complete the work just shortly before his death.

The book was an overwhelming success. Consider, first, the marketing campaign put into place by Mark Twain. As described in Wikipedia,
Twain created a unique marketing system designed to reach millions of veterans with a patriotic appeal just as Grant's death was being mourned. Ten thousand agents canvassed the North, following a script that Twain had devised; many were veterans who dressed in their old uniforms. They sold 350,000 two-volume sets at prices from $3.50 to $12, depending on the binding (roughly $100 to $330 in 2018). Each copy contained what looked like a handwritten note from Grant himself.
Twain described the scope of the sales of the books thusly—
We have printed & sold 610,000 single volumes, at an average of $4 each; using 906 tons of papers; & in the binding, 35,261 sheep, goat, & calf skins, & 25 1/4 miles of cloth a yard wide. There were 276 barrels (69,0000 pounds) of binder-paste used, and the gold-leaf on the backs of the books cost $21,639.50; 41 steam-presses were employed day & night, & together they turned out a complete book at every revolution. The book was issued 14 months ago, & we have thus far paid Mrs. Grant two checks for royalties: one for $200,000, & the other for $150,000 - & more is still due her.
As for the contents of the memoirs itself, Twain proclaimed the work as--
…the most admirably simple, direct and unpretentious story that was ever put on paper by a supremely great man.
In a word, Grant’s memoirs were a publishing sensation. Indeed, even with today’s memoir-a-week publishing trend for politicians, entertainers and other public figures, has there ever have been a marketing campaign for the publication of memoirs by a public figure as effective as this one?

And yet, even if Grant’s memoirs did ensure financial security for his wife and family after his failed investment, it was Austen's reputation that most benefited from the genre of the memoir. In 1869, her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, published “A Memoir of Jane Austen”. This publication stirred public re-interest in her works and can be seen as the turning point in the recognition of Austen as one of the great authors in the English language.

As for how both Austen and Grant went about their respective publication business, their experiences were at once both worlds apart from ours and yet surprisingly familiar. In the words of the famous epithet of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
For the latest biography of Ulysses S. Grant, see here.

The photograph in the middle is by Manuel Cacciatori and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The photograph in the lower left is from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a10251.

By Neil Wilkof

What we can learn from Jane Austen and President Ulysses S. Grant about the business of book publishing: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" What we can learn from Jane Austen and President Ulysses S. Grant about the business of book publishing: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Monday, August 26, 2019 Rating: 5


  1. Thank you very much Neil for sharing these stories. There are many similarities with the publishing market today and the contractual conditions between authors and publishers. But there is one aspect that changes: today we have literary agents, which facilitate the relationship between the parties. Do you think Mark Twain was the closest thing to an agent, as we know them today?
    In countries like Argentina, where there are almost no literary agents, the situation is very similar to what Jane Austin had to live.

  2. Hi Gustavo
    Thank you for your comments.
    Regarding your question, it turns out that a one-act play has explored the relationship between Twain and Grant. Vox magazine, in discussing the play, in an article entitled "The friendship between Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant comes to life in 'Memoirs' ", explains as follows:
    "If it hadn't been for the encouragement from his friend and admirer Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant would have never written the personal memoirs that have kept his memory alive.
    Don Nigro’s one-act play Memoirs, produced by Minimal Art Productions at the Talking Horse Productions theater, depicts the unusual friendship between Grant and Twain through the tragedy of war, sickness and the journey of writing as part of this imagining of true events.
    In 1883, Grant lost his fortune in a bad investment; not long after, he was diagnosed with tongue and throat cancer. He knew he didn’t have long to live and was worried that he would leave his family with no financial compensation as a result of his bad investment.
    Twain had great admiration for Grant and proposed a solution: If Grant wrote personal memoirs, Twain would publish them…."


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