Penny Dreadfuls; the 99c Kindle eBook of the Victorian Era
|My own homage to the genre, Kindle version|
It’s easy for a generation to think they’re innovators, let’s face it, most generations are. A new age ushers in new inventions, and the world advances. But there’s one phrase that keeps rearing its ugly head; ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’.
The Arrival of 99c eBooksIn the early 2000's the arrival of the eBook turned the world of publishing on its head. Suddenly anyone could publish, authors had control of their own works and destinies, free and 99c eBooks were the norm and flooded through the ether into devices of all kinds and sizes. Self-publishing shed some of its past stigma, and the indie writer now considered by many to be mainstream.
Yup, such a publishing revolution has never happened before… or has it?
Answer? It did.
|Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo, 1845|
The Adventure Novel, but not for the Common ManAlmost 200 years previously in the early 1800’s, the modern adventure/romantic novel had broken through as a genre, but the books were expensive to buy, sometimes costing as much as 10 shillings (when the average workhouse worker earned 5 shillings per week). Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), and Ivanhoe (1819), were paving the way for the likes of James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826), Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo (1840) and a host of others in every major language.
The novels sold well enough to make the author a fair profit from his work, but even second-hand copies were out of the reach of the working man.
But wait no more, things were about to change; a publishing revolution was about to break out; an innovation in publishing as big as eBooks.
|Charles Dickens, 1867|
Book Chapter SerializationInstead of waiting a year to write a book, writers like Charles Dickens began to publish their novels a chapter at a time. Priced at a shilling (twelve pennies), this allowed Dickens to have a more regular income, but also he could change a novel’s direction, mood or character development depending on public feedback. Does this writing approach sound remotely familiar?
In similar fashion, Alexandre Dumas released the Count of Monte Cristo in 18 parts before finally binding it into a full novel.
Times had changed, but they were about to get real ugly, and fast. In 1830’s Britain, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, a major element of the working class could now read and write, and had a thirst for fiction; a need to explore the world outside their own parochial existence. The demand for cheap material was in no doubt, and the authors who would fill that demand were about to get real dirty.
|Black Bess, ran weekly for 2 years|
The Ugly Side; Plagiarists, Thieves, and CopiersDriven by this ready audience, and the fact that publishing rights were in their infancy and rarely enforced, a host of copycat writers took to pen and paper. These plagiarists took popular works, re-wrote them in shorter versions, selling them for one penny… nicknamed Penny Dreadful’s; not because of the plagiarism or bad standard of content, but because of the predominantly macabre subject matter; murders, kidnappings, highwaymen, etc, etc. Titles such as The Penny Pickwick (a lampoon of the Pickwick Papers), Nickelas Nickelbery and David Copperful became commonplace. The stories were not technically copies, they were re-written, shorter, and usually made fun of the original. Writers made their fortunes selling a folded sheet, two columns on each of the four pages, usually containing about 2500 words and a couple of lined illustrations. The 99c Kindle for the age had arrived. Foreign writers fared no better. French tales were translated, and American dime novels were re-written for a British audience, with the original author receiving no remuneration for his work.
|George Reynolds, sold a million copies|
The Penny Dreadful; the Victorian 99c eBookDespite the initial surge of such shenanigans, the writers in the penny dreadful industry soon began to write their own stories, with serialization becoming the norm.
Series such as Varney the Vampyre (230 weekly episodes), The Mysteries of London, (240 weeks) Dick Turpin (254 episodes) had readers queuing outside publishers every week. The Mysteries of the Court of London ran every week for an incredible Eight Years!
Working class Brits who could or would not afford the penny, joined reading clubs to share episodes, almost like a subscription library system.
Over the next sixty years, these single page publications expanded into magazines of note, newspapers still around today, and newsletters. These new, bound publications still included many pages of serialized and single story fiction, but non-fiction articles and news items were added, and by the 1890’s the Penny Dreadful had gone from the publishers bookshelves.
But the revolution of the cheaper novel lived on; they were mass produced, cost far less, and paved the way for the next revolution in publishing; the paperback.
If you would like to read my own "Penny Dreadful", it is available on eBooks everywhere.
Penny Dreadful Adventures on Kindle.
Penny Dreadful Adventures on Nook
Penny Dreadful Adventures on Kobo