On the 161st Anniversary of Moby Dick (or Moby-Dick, take your pick), HarperCollins has released the original publishing agreement.
Lowering the Bar has some background:
The contract provided that the said Herman Melville would get half the net profits from the sale of said book in the United States for the next seven years, although once the publisher had recovered the cost of the plates used to print it, Melville could have the terms changed so he would get a “sum certain” for each copy sold.
Notice that Herman was represented by his brother, Allan, who it appears was an attorney.
“Half the net profits” sounds like a pretty good deal these days, and maybe it was then, too, but sadly Moby Dick did not sell very well during Melville’s lifetime. Melville’s first two books sold well, but it was mostly downhill from there. According to [one] source, Melville earned a grand total of $556.37 (less than $16,000 in today’s dollars) for the U.S. edition of Moby Dick (3,215 copies sold).