THAT SIR WALTER SCOTT was the first best-selling author is indisputable. His first major poem was so successful that the publisher offered the world’s first advance for the rights to his next work, sight unseen. Waverley (1814), his anonymously published debut novel, had sold more than fifty thousand copies by the time the “collected” edition of his works appeared. Even this figure must be an underestimate, since it excludes the pirated versions that appeared in Dublin, Boston, Philadelphia, and Calcutta and the translations into most major European languages. Even a relatively minor novel, The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), sold out its initial printing before 10:30 AM on the day of publication. Scott’s popularity, both commercially and critically, was unprecedented. But why he became the first best seller is a more problematic question. The stereotype of the best seller is of a formulaic kind of writing; a genre that delivers exactly what the reader expects, as unchangingly as McDonald’s burgers. It is striking that Scott was aware throughout his career of the dangers of acquiring “the character of a mannerist.”
more from Stuart Kelly at Bookforum here.