Nina Martyris over at the Paris Review recounts the delightful story of How ‘Les Misérables’ Was the Biggest Deal in Book History:

Signed in 1861 on a sunny Atlantic island, it tied an exiled French genius to an upstart Belgian house, resulting in the printing of that perennial masterwork, Les Misérables. In a new book, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’, the professor and translator David Bellos condenses tranches of research into a gripping tale about Victor Hugo’s masterpiece. 

The deal, Bellos points out, was pathbreaking on several levels. First, Hugo earned an unprecedented sum: 300,000 francs (roughly $3.8 million in today’s money) for an eight-year license. “It was a tremendous amount of money, and since it entitled the publisher to own the work for only eight years, it remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature,” Bellos writes: “In terms of gold it would have weighed around ninety-seven kilos [213 pounds]. It was enough money to build a small railway or endow a chair at the Sorbonne.”

Second, the neophyte Belgian publisher Albert Lacroix was the antithesis of a Penguin Random House. At the time, the twenty-eight-year-old Lacroix had cut his teeth at his uncle’s printing press, and he didn’t have so much as a sou to his name. Determined to sign Hugo on, he set up his own firm—Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Co—and borrowed the entire amount for Hugo’s advance from the Oppenheim bank in Brussels, where he had contacts. Bellos marks it as “probably the first loan ever made by a bank to finance a book,” which means “Les Misérables stands at the vanguard of the use of venture capital to fund the arts.”

Third, Lacroix signed on knowing full well that his client was a political outcast….

Read the full story: How ‘Les Misérables’ Was the Biggest Deal in Book History:

Get The Book:The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’ by David Bellos