Just learn how to capture your luck, for your luck is always there


As Goethe observed in 1797, “the publisher always knows the profit to himself and his family whereas the author is totally in the dark.” This problem of lopsided information was aggravated by the near-absence of copyright protection in the 18th and 19th century. A bestseller could be expected to spawn an abundance of pirated versions. Charles Dickens, on his first trip to the United States in 1842, complained endlessly about the pirating of his works for the U.S. market. This lack of intellectual property protection led to further conflicts of interest and opinion between authors and publishers: it was standard practice among publishers — even respectable ones — to have multiple print runs without an author’s permission, and writers sometimes tried to sell near-identical editions of the same title to multiple publishers. Because authors couldn’t trust the sales numbers if and when their publishers provided them, 19th-century book contracts were for a fixed fee rather than per-copy royalty payments. […]

Goethe engineered the following mechanism […]

I am inclined to offer Mr. Vieweg from Berlin an epic poem, Hermann and Dorothea, which will have approximately 2000 hexameters. …Concerning the royalty we will proceed as follows: I will hand over to Mr. Counsel Böttiger [Goethe’s lawyer] a sealed note which contains my demand, and I wait for what Mr. Vieweg will suggest to offer for my work. If his offer is lower than my demand, then I take my note back, unopened, and the negotiation is broken. If, however, his offer is higher, then I will not ask for more than what is written in the note to be opened by Mr. Böttiger.

Scholars had treated Goethe’s proposition as one of the enigmas left behind by one of history’s greatest literary figures. But the economists argue that there’s no mystery to Goethe’s choice of mechanism. The author wanted to know how much he was worth to Vieweg, and he devised this peculiar “auction” to get Vieweg to tell him.

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