Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1875 – 1932)
Self-publishing can be an interesting experience. As well as writing your magnum opus you need to market it and the temptation is to come up with some cunning stunt to boost sales. The sorry tale of Edgar Wallace, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame and Britain’s most prolific author, illustrates what can go wrong.
Wallace wrote his first book, The Four Just Men – to be reviewed in July – in 1905 but struggled to find a publisher. His solution was to establish his own publishing company, Tallis. So far, so good.
The structure of the book is slightly odd in that we are told several times throughout the book that Thery, the fourth just man, had been recruited because he possessed the requisite skills required to carry out an assassination but we are not told what those are. And how the murder is accomplished is only revealed in the final pages. The reason for this is that Wallace decided to promote his book through a major advertising campaign in conjunction with the Daily Mail across Britain and the Empire – we still had one in those days. A prize of £1,000 was made available to anyone who guessed the murder method before the solution was revealed.
£1,000 was an enormous sum in those days and Wallace was prevailed upon to lower the prizes on offer to £250 for the first prize, £200 for the second and £50 for the third. Wallace blitzed the world with an extensive marketing campaign, posting advertisements on buses, hoardings and flyers and ran up a bill of £2,000 in the process. So he needed to sell £2,500 worth of books before he saw a penny of profit.
The advertising campaign worked well and copies of the book flew off the shelves. Wallace wrote over 500 books but his first was one of his best sellers. Entries to the competition, many of which were correct, flooded in. But as befitting an inductee of our Hall of Fame, Wallace had made a disastrous mistake. He had omitted in the terms and conditions of the competition to restrict the number of winners of each prize to just one. Just before the competition closed, the lawyers of the Daily Mail told him that he was legally obliged to pay all the winners of his competition. To say that this put a hole in his financial projections is an understatement.
Wallace’s initial approach was to adopt the stance of Emil Savundra and refuse to pay out. The problem was that the final chapter of the book with the revelation of how the deed was accomplished had now been published and everyone who had entered the competition would know whether they had had a correct answer or not. The size of the prizes, particularly for the sort of people who devoured crime fiction, was of a size that they would not willingly let it go. Indeed, by early 1906 considerable doubts were being expressed about the probity of the competition and the Daily Mail, who had hosted the competition and in those days cared about their reputation, was getting increasingly concerned. Eventually, Lord Harmsworth, the proprietor, put his hand in his pocket to the tune of £5,000 to rescue the situation.
As for Wallace, he had to declare himself bankrupt and sold the rights to Sir George Newnes for a measly £75 in order to throw some scraps to his creditors. His financial situation prompted his phenomenal literary output.
Edgar Wallace, for turning a best seller into a financial disaster, you are a worthy inductee.
If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards