This is the earliest known example of a contract between an English author and their publisher. It records John Milton’s agreement with his printer Samuel Symmons or Simmons (1640–1687), about the sale and publication of Paradise Lost.
The contract is dated 27 April 1667, and the epic poem went to press about six months later. In this way, it started its journey to become a well-known literary masterpiece, but also a profitable commodity.
Simmons did not include his name on early title pages, but listed three London booksellers – Peter Parker, Robert Boulter and Matthias Walker – who acted as wholesale distributors of the book.
The contract shows that Simmons paid Milton £5 straight away, and promised him a further £5 ‘of lawfull English money’ once 1,300 copies of the book had been sold. There was potential for Milton to earn an additional £10, if the second and third editions – each 1,300 copies ‒ were sold.
In exchange, Milton gave Simmons the ‘Booke, Copy, or Manuscript of a Poem intituled Paradise Lost’ and the right to print the work, even if the ‘title or name’ was changed. Simmons would get the ‘full benefit, profit, and advantage’, and Milton would need consent if he wanted to publish another work on the same subject.
Because it is the earliest surviving publishing contract, critics have debated what it reveals about notions of copyright and authorship in 17th-century England.
John Milton had lost the sight in both of his eyes by his early forties, and had to dictate Paradise Lost, laboriously line-by-line. The publishing contract is believed to have been signed on Milton’s behalf by an amanuensis or scribe. Milton then affixed his seal to it.
There is proof that Milton received his second instalment of £5 on 26 April 1669, for sales of the first edition. But he died in 1674, soon after the second edition was printed, and he never saw the third edition of 1678. On 21 December 1680, Milton’s widow Elizabeth was paid £8, perhaps as a settlement for the £10 that was owed for Paradise Lost.
More information can be found in this blog article.