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Mega Book Deal for “Les Mis”

Les Misérables was born of one of the riskiest—and shrewdest—deals in publishing history.

In Hugo, Inc., The Paris Review March 23, 2017, Nina Martyris writes,

“In a new book, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’, the professor and translator David Bellos condenses tranches of research into a gripping tale about Victor Hugo’s masterpiece. ”

“[This] record-shattering deal [is] widely regarded as the publishing coup of all time. Signed in 1861 on a sunny Atlantic island, it tied an exiled French genius to an upstart Belgian house, resulting in the printing of that perennial masterwork, Les Misérables.

The Deal

“The deal, Bellos points out, was pathbreaking on several levels. First, Hugo earned an unprecedented sum: 300,000 francs (roughly $3.8 million in today’s money) for an eight-year license. “’It was a tremendous amount of money, and since it entitled the publisher to own the work for only eight years, it remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature. The in toto amount of 300,000 francs that Lacroix agreed to pay in cash included 50,000 francs for translation rights—a new concept in publishing at the time.”


The Media

“Next came the gargantuan publicity campaign—designed to unleash such excitement that even an emperor with an axe to grind would think twice about depriving the masses of the sensational treat promised them. Press releases were distributed six months in advance, and the walls of Paris plastered with illustrations of Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cossette, Marius, and other characters from the novel. In a break with tradition, no advance review copies were sent out. The text was as fiercely embargoed as a Harry Potter novel—probably, Bello says, “the first work ever launched under embargo.” (Hugo, Inc.)

“By 1861, the publishing grapevine had begun to drip with the news that the exiled French poet had a big novel to sell. Naturally, there was plenty of interest. Hugo had inherited Goethe’s mantle of Europe’s preeminent literary seer, and he was a proven crowd-pleaser, with the blockbuster Notre Dame de Paris under his belt. But there was also unease at the dangling guillotine of censorship. Nevertheless, when Hugo was offered a handsome 150,000 francs by an established publisher-friend, he declined. How much did he want? It was quite simple, writes Bellos: “’He wanted more than had ever been paid for a book.’”  (Hugo, Inc.)

The Result

“On the morning of April 4, 1862, part 1 of Les Misérables, called “Fantine,” was released simultaneously in Brussels, Paris, Saint Petersburg, London, Leipzig, and several other European cities. No book had ever had an international launch on this scale … Within a day, the first Paris printing of six thousand copies sold out … forty-eight thousand copies of the “Cossette” and “Marius” volumes went on sale a month later …Hugo had produced a moral and commercial juggernaut, a piece of intellectual property that would launch both social reform as well as a plethora of movies, musicals and video games.”  (Hugo, Inc.)

The “New Media”

The implications, as exemplified by story of the deal for Les Mis Deal for the “New Media” are significant. The Media, and the New Media, portray everything as “New”, from laundry detergent to politicians. The message is that “This Has Never Happened Before,” (Tweet: “Sun Rises, Again!!”). This “news” is instantaneous, (Tweet: “World Has Ended. Bye”). Instagram:

However, the things we see in the Media, and in the New Media,  are usually devoid of perspective and president. Since everything is “New,” there is no need to clutter up things with “history.”  Thus, the book deal of today is described as a “Blockbuster Deal.” The amount of money paid in each Blockbuster Deal is always  described as “The Largest.”  In a Blockbuster Deal story, the story of the Les Mis Deal is never told. However #2, the “New Media” itself makes it possible to find this story virtually instantaneously, even by those writing “The News” …









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