Gone with the Wind: A Publishing Phenomenon

Gone with the Wind book

Gone With the Wind — the book — was a publishing phenomenon. Not within memory had an American novel been so long (1,037 pages, a half-million words) or weighed so much (3.5 pounds).

MacMillan published GWTW at a time when the book industry, like all others in the U.S., was still suffering from the results of the Depression. At least one person was concerned about the enterprise: Margaret Mitchell.

“I do hope they sell five thousand copies,” she remarked, “so they don’t lose money.” In one day GWTW sold 50,000 copies.

The novel was published on June 30, 1936. It did not burst unheralded on the literary scene, contrary to popular legend. GWTW had already been made a selection of Book of the Month Club, and advance sales were remarkable for a first novel by such an unknown author, particularly for a book of such length.

No one was prepared for what followed. Within three weeks 176,000 copies had been sold at $3 per copy. In half a year, a million copies.

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margaret mitchell with Gone With the Wind

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Mixed reviews for Gone With the Wind

The reviews were mixed. Some critics helped the novel as a masterpiece, comparing it to Vanity Fair, because of its similarly strong-headed heroine, Becky Sharp. Some even declared GWTW to be the American War and Peace in its depiction of human events against the backdrop of a national cataclysm.

“Endlessly interesting,” wrote Henry Steele Commager in the New York Herald Tribune. A few critics were less convinced. Ralph Thompson wrote in the New York Times review of the book that he thought it was 500 pages too long and found the plot “unconvincing and rather absurd.”

John Peale Bishop of New Republic called the novel “competent, but neither very good nor very sound.”

The rest of the reading public seemed totally engrossed with the fortunes of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. GWTW continued to sell at a furious rate in America — 1,690,000 copies within a year — and it became an immense favorite in England.

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Gone with the wind by Margaret Mitchell paperback edition

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell on Amazon
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Movie rights

One of the early readers of GWTW was Kay Brown, eastern story editor for film producer David O. Selznick. She airmailed a copy of the book and a synopsis to her boss and fired off a telegram which ended:

“I beg, urge, coax, and plead with you to read this at once. I know that after you read the book you will drop everything and buy it.”

Selznick read the synopsis but was unconvinced. He saw two drawbacks: Civil War movies especially the recent So Red the Rose were notable for failing at the box office, and GWTW was so long and sprawling as to seem impossible to film.

But he was persuaded to buy the novel when the board chairman of Selznick International Pictures, John Hay “Jock” Whitney threatened to make the purchase himself. The price: $50,000.

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Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler

The Search for Scarlett O’Hara
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GWTW: A true publishing phenomenon

In later years that seemed to be a bargain for such a popular novel in American literature, especially when a My Fair Lady could bring a price of $5,500,000. But in 1936, $50,000 was a respectable sum to pay for a novel by a previously unpublished author.

After the move had been released, Selznick voluntarily sent Miss Mitchell another check for $50.000.

Millions upon millions of copies have been sold throughout the world in some 30 languages, and continued to produce annual royalties to the Stephens Mitchell, the authors brother, after Miss Mitchell’s untimely death in 1949.

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Gone with the Wind poster 1939

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Originally published in The Story of Gone With the Wind  by Bob Thomas, © 1967 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., National Publishers, Inc., New York.

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