Publish Your Own Book: History of Thomas Paine's Common Sense

About the famous pamphlet Common Sense by Thomas Paine which was self-publishsed and though a big seller, not a big money maker.

Publish Your Own Book

Thomas Paine's 1st self-publishing effort, The Case of the Officers of Excise (1772), got him fired from his exciseman job. The firing was unlucky for England. Paine left home and sailed to the American Colonies looking for work.

When Paine's next self-published tract, Common Sense, came off the press on January 10, 1776, not many people were thinking of independence from England. Six months later, largely because of this pamphlet, the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Paine originally thought of having his opinions published as a series of letters to the editors of Colonial newspapers, but most editors would not print the letters. At the advice of physician Benjamin Rush, Paine decided to publish his views in pamphlet form. He contracted with a printer, Robert Bell, for a 1st edition of 1,000 copies of 47 pages to be priced at 2 shillings each. Paine promised to make up any losses that Bell incurred in the printing. Bell would receive half the profits with the other half reserved for the purchase of mittens for the Continental Army.

The 1st printing of Common Sense sold out in 2 weeks. Paine said that Bell had made pound 60 profit and demanded half of that for mittens. Bell insisted that he had made no profit and proceeded to print a 2nd, unauthorized edition. When Paine objected to the 2nd edition, Bell told him it was none of his business.

Paine enlarged the pamphlet with an appendix and an "Address to the Quakers." He paid 2 other printers to do 6,000 copies of this edition and then sold the edition to a bookseller, W. T. Bradford, for 8 1/2 pennies per booklet, pledging the firm to sell them at no more than one shilling so that all readers could afford a copy.

Paine never made a shilling on Common Sense. By 1779 he was still in the hole by pound 39, 11 shillings for the printing of the enlarged edition, although 150,000 copies had been sold in America and others were sold in England, Ireland, France, and South America. Total sales eventually reached over 500,000 copies.

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