When traditional ‘prestigious’ publishers refused to publish Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, because they were scared of a backlash against its irreligious themes, James Lackington stepped up.
He was the first of the modern booksellers and visionary in his approach.
Coming to London from Somerset with just two shillings and sixpence, he went on to open the biggest bookshop in London, on Finsbury Square. It was so big and opulent that James had a coach and four horses driven through the shop on its opening. it boasted a circular design built around a skylit dome with levels of ‘Lounging Rooms’ above the main floor where books could be read for free. (Keats came there as a schoolboy). There were its towers of books, antique paintings, busts, classical knick-knacks, and Romanesque cupola. It became a tourist attraction as well as a bookstore.
A sign above the door boasted that it was the Cheapest Bookstore in the World. This was not just about making a profit, it was also principle. James Lackington believed that everyone, regardless of age, wealth and even gender (a remarkable idea) should be able to access the knowledge available in books.
Lackington kept his prices low in several ways. He would give no credit - contrary to common practice in the early 19th century - which meant he could run a cash business and undercut his competitors. A sign said: The lowest price is marked on every book, and no abatement made on any article. His business philosophy was focussed on volume sales. He drove around in a carriage inscribed with his motto: Small profits do great things.
He also pioneered many modern book selling practices. He bought up whole libraries as well as remaindered books that would otherwise be destroyed, thus increasing his stock. He boasted that he carried 12000 titles. Other booksellers accused Lackington of unfair competition; they complained that he controlled too great a share of the market and should “decline” his business, since he had already made his fortune. Ownership of the media is not a new problem…
At that time booksellers were often publishers as well, and Lackington, in partnership with Hughes, Harding, Mayor & Jones, had the courage and foresight to publish Frankenstein, in three volumes, on New Years Day 1818. Clearly he knew a winner when he saw it!
500 copies were printed and Mary Shelley’s share was one third of the profits: £41 ($20,00 in today’s money.) From there to Boris Karloff!!!