August 26, 2011

Little Women: better than expected

Louisa May Alcott did not enjoy writing Little Women, a book created almost "to order" for Thomas Niles, editor at the publishing house of Roberts Brothers. She later recalled that she wanted to prove to him that she could not write a successful book for girls. Both agreed the first chapters were dull. Nevertheless, Alcott finished the book and Niles sent her the page proofs on August 26, 1868. As she recorded in her journal:

Proof of whole book came. It reads better than I expected. Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it; and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it. Mr. N. likes it better now, and says some girls who have read the manuscripts say it is "splendid!" As it is for them, they are the best critics, so I should be satisfied.

Roberts Brothers had offered to pay her up front for the book or, alternatively, she could hold the copyright and be paid in royalties. Niles, who Alcott called "an honest publisher," suggested she take the royalties. 17 years later, Alcott added a notation to this journal entry (in the third person) that "the copyright made her fortune, and the 'dull book' was the first golden egg of the ugly duckling."

Alcott, who had previously published several unsuccessful books in addition to her various freelance tales, was pleasantly surprised by the sales of Little Women. In fact, Niles suggested she add a second volume to the book. She vowed to be done writing the appended volume in a month.

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