When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843, he wanted to make sure the book was affordable. The first printing of 6,000 copies, each book priced at a mere 5 shillings (about $2 in 1800s currency; about $25 in today’s currency) was sold out by Christmas eve. Dickens received his allotment of presentation copies on December 17, and immediately sent inscribed copies to his close friends and colleagues; he ran out of his copies 5 days later. Dickens’s publisher, Chapman and Hall, quickly printed a second and third edition, bringing the total of books sold to 9,000 by the end of the year — a remarkable achievement in Victorian England. Over the next few years, the book went through a total of 24 printings of that particular edition.
For almost two centuries, Dickens’s “ghostly little story” about redemption and charity has grown in our hearts — and just as significant, its value has grown exponentially. As bibliophiles and antiquarian booksellers know, there are many factors that contribute to a book’s value — condition, uniqueness, beauty, quality of binding, history, and inscription and/or signature. The first edition of A Christmas Carol (or The Carol, as it is known to collectors of Dickens’s works) has benefited from all these factors, and hence has consistently risen in value. A true first edition (from the first printing) is generally worth from $18,000 to $45,000. The value of The Carol skyrockets when you consider the very rare inscribed presentation editions (the ones that Dickens gave to his friends) that range from $50,000 to $280,000! Truly a staggering valuation that would certainly bring a smile to any Scrooge.
A review of auction prices within the last two decades shows how quickly the value of The Carol has appreciated in modern times. A presentation copy inscribed to poet Thomas Hood was sold at auction in 1997 for $50,000. Just one year later, another presentation copy, this one inscribed to writer and poet Walter Landor, sold for $160,000. The most valuable copy, however, was a presentation copy inscribed to William Macready, an actor and close friend of Dickens, dated January 1, 1844 that was sold by Sotheby’s auction house for $282,408 in 2010. Ironically, The Carol was not as profitable as Dickens had hoped due to its high cost of production. Certainly, Dickens could never have imagined that his modestly-priced Christmas story would become of the most precious and sought-after books in literature — making him in the end, to use Scrooge’s phrase, “a good man of business.”
For further reading: The Annotated Christmas Carol by Michael Patrick Hearn, Norton (2004)