Who published Don Juan?
Lord Byron, who had been living abroad since 1816, was not fully aware of the political situation when he sent the manuscript of the first two cantos of Don Juan to be passed to his publisher John Murray in late 1818. Murray was at first enthusiastic, but proposed cuts, realising that the nature of the poem might expose him to prosecution in an environment in which publishers could be prosecuted for ‘blasphemous libel’. Murray published the cantos in 1819, but not under his own name as publisher, and removing the dedication with its attacks on the establishment poet Southey and the politician Castlereagh. The price (31 shillings) shows it was aimed at the wealthy. Together these decisions protected Murray from prosecution, but meant that his copyright was less secure.
A pirate edition was quickly produced by J Onwhyn, at a much lower price, leading to financial loss for Murray; 150 copies of his first edition were unsold, and were traded as waste-paper. Murray was forced to issue a cheaper edition. In 1821 he issued cantos 3-5, again without his name as publisher. Some of Byron’s friends felt that Murray’s delays and pricing policy had encouraged publishers to issue pirate editions. Despite his reservations Murray wanted to go on publishing Byron, but found his work too risky. He complained to Byron of the possible loss of reputation both to Byron and himself that could be caused by the poet turning to publishers of radical pamphlets, stating emphatically that Don Juan
Cantos 6-8 were too dangerous: ‘Mr Kinnaird sent me the 3 Cantos of Don Juan … I declare to you they were so outrageously shocking that I would not publish them if you were to give me your Estate – Title and Genius – for Heaven’s sake revise them …’
How did Byron react to this?
Byron responded ‘I shall withdraw from you as publisher … and I wish you good luck elsewhere’; from then on the radical John Hunt was Byron’s authorised publisher, and later cantos of Don Juan received no copyright protection. Priced at 1 shilling to forestall piracy, it became available to almost anyone who wanted it. Murray eventually bought the rights to Cantos 6-16 in 1829.