Thoughts on the enduring power of Sherlock.

Conan Doyle had his first Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. According to the Wikipedia page, neither the public nor publishers were bowled over by it.

For writers with aspirations, such snippets are reassuring. Publication success can take time, and certainly needs patience. For readers, it demonstrates something of the drive behind the pages we readers consume. I don’t need to point out that Conan Doyle didn’t abandon his characters.

Ward, Lock & Co published that first story as a hardback book in July 1888. It sold well enough to deserve a second edition the following year. This did not mean that the ‘cult’ of Sherlock and Watson had properly begun at that point.

It wasn’t until 1891 that the duo began to build a following. That was after they began to appear as a Strand Magazine series.

In Britain, Strand Magazine was one of THE places to be published. The Wikipedia entry for the magazine says that that first issue, of January 1891, sold nearly 300,000 copies.

There’s an interesting fact filled essay about the magazine on The Strand Magazine website. In, The Story of The Strand, Chris Willis explains that:

…the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership. The content was a mixture of factual articles, short stories and serials most of which were illustrated to some extent. Despite expense and production difficulties, Newnes aimed at having a picture on every page — a valuable selling point at a time when the arts of photography and process engraving were in their infancy. “A monthly magazine costing sixpence but worth a shilling” was the slogan the publicity-conscious Newnes used to advertise the Strand – which was half the price of most monthlies of the period.

Did you note that fragment of a sentence I started the Willis quote with? ‘…the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership.

In this period, books often came into households as communal items. We should count those 300,000 copies as being read by at least two, rather than one reader, even if we’re just looking at married couples. However, if we assume children, and perhaps a servant or two, the readership for the magazine rises significantly, and we’ve only considered the first few issues.

So popular was this magazine that circulation soon rose to almost 500,000 copies a month, and continued at that rate until well into the 1930s. That’s a lot of audience for stories. I wonder if there’s an equivalent opportunity for new writing today?

Conan Doyle was not the first, and is far from the last, writer to have demonstrated that persistence needs to be a feature of the fiction author’s character. Beyond the necessary dedication to putting time into practicing your craft, is the effort needed to find a way to access an audience.

Marketing may change, but the principles remain the same. It can be useful to think about how much of the fiction that we now see as part of our literary heritage went unrecognised, in the first steps towards publication.

Take heart, writers. Keep crafting: keep grafting.

Incidentally, should you happen to have a copy of that 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual on your shelves, you might like to dust it off and treat it with especial care. There are only eleven known copies, up to now.