How the First Sherlock Holmes Story was Sold for a Song

Beeton's Christmas Annual: A Study in Scarlett
Beeton's Christmas Annual: A Study in Scarlett

by Ray Setterfield

December 1, 1887 — Samuel Orchart Beeton was a 19th Century English publisher, probably most famous for giving the world Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This legendary collection of recipes and advice for middle-class ladies on how to run their homes was compiled by Beeton’s wife and first appeared in 1861. By 1868 it had sold two million copies and is still in demand to this day.

Beeton published many other titles, however. They included Beeton's Dictionary of Geography, Boy’s Own Magazine, Beeton's Book of Anecdote, Wit and Humour, Beeton's Dictionary of Natural History, Beeton's Book of Birds, and, not least, Beeton’s Christmas Annual, a paperback magazine stuffed with stories, poems, sketches and anecdotes that appeared annually between 1860 and 1898.

It was the edition that officially went on sale on December 1st, 1887, that carved a place in literary history for the annual. For it contained Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story – A Study in Scarlet. Now extremely rare, original editions of this annual are in great demand, one being sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for $156,000.

Ironically, in 1886, Conan Doyle, wrote to the publisher Ward Lock, who had taken over Beeton’s, asking for a percentage on sales of his story. He had sold the copyright to them for £25. They replied: “We regret to say that we shall be unable to allow you to retain a percentage on the sale of your work as it might give rise to some confusion. The tale may have to be inserted together with some other in one of our annuals, therefore we must adhere to our original offer of £25 for the complete copyright.”

Sherlock might have detected some guile there!

Published: April 24, 2016

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