In November 1837 Charles Dickens signed a contract with the publishers Chapman and Hall for a new novel ‘of a similar character and of the same extent and contents in point of quantity’ as Pickwick Papers. Nicholas Nickleby was duly published in 20 monthly parts, or numbers, at a shilling each between March 1838 and September 1839, the last being a double number at two shillings. Each part consisted of 32 pages of text and two engraved plates, bound with advertising supplements in pale green wrappers designed by the illustrator Hablot Browne (Phiz).
Publication in parts was a long-established practice which had the advantage for the publisher of spreading the cost of production over a long period, and for the purchaser of making high-quality, lavishly illustrated fiction affordable. Authors also benefited from a regular income while they wrote: Dickens received £150 for each monthly instalment of Nicholas Nickleby. It became an important form of publication used by many of the most eminent and popular Victorian novelists, including Thackeray and Trollope, especially during the 1850s and 1860s.
Dickens relished the immediacy of the serial form and the close relationship it allowed him to establish with his readers. Nine of his novels appeared in monthly instalments: Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend and Edwin Drood. The format was so successful that both Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist were reissued in parts several years after their first publication, and The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities were issued in monthly parts simultaneously with their appearance as weekly magazine serials.