Melville first proposed the English publication in a 27 June 1850 letter to Richard Bentley, London publisher of his earlier works. Textual scholar G. Thomas Tanselle explains that for these earlier books American proof sheets had been sent to the English publisher and that publication in the United States had been held off until the work had been set in type and published in England. This procedure was intended to provide the best (though still uncertain) claim for the English copyright of an American work. In the case of Moby-Dick, Melville had taken almost a year longer than promised, and could not rely on Harpers to prepare the proofs as they had done for the earlier books. Indeed, Harpers had denied him an advance, and since he was already in debt to them for almost $700 he was forced to borrow money and to arrange for the typesetting and plating himself. John Bryant suggests that he did so "to reduce the number of hands playing with his text".
The final stages of composition overlapped with the early stages of publication. In June 1851 Melville wrote to Hawthorne that he was in New York to "work and slave on my 'Whale' while it is driving through the press." By the end of the month, "wearied with the long delay of printers" Melville came back to finish work on the book in Pittsfield. Three weeks later, the typesetting was almost done, as he announced to Bentley on 20 July: "I am now passing thro' the press, the closing sheets of my new work". While Melville was simultaneously writing and proofreading what had been set, the corrected proof would be plated, that is, the type fixed in final form. Since earlier chapters were already plated when he was revising the later ones, Melville must have "felt restricted in the kinds of revisions that were feasible".
On 3 July 1851, Bentley offered Melville ₤150 and "half profits", that is, half the profits that remained after the expenses of production and advertising. On 20 July Melville accepted, after which Bentley drew up a contract on 13 August. Melville signed and returned the contract in early September, and then went to New York with the proof sheets, made from the finished plates, which he sent to London by his brother Allan on 10 September. For over a month these proofs had been in Melville's possession, and because the book would be set anew in England, he could devote all his time to correcting and revising them. He still had no American publisher, so there was not the usual hurry about getting the English publication to precede the American. Only on 12 September was the Harper publishing contract signed. Bentley received the proof sheets with Melville's corrections and revisions marked on them on September 24. He published the book less than four weeks later.
On 18 October, the English edition, The Whale, was published in a printing of only 500 copies, fewer than Melville's previous books. Their slow sales had convinced Bentley that a smaller number was more realistic. The London Morning Herald on October 20 printed the earliest known review. On 14 November, the American edition, Moby-Dick, was published and the same day reviewed in both the Albany Argus and the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer. On 19 November, Washington received the copy to be deposited for copyright purposes. The first American printing of 2,915 copies was almost the same as the first of Mardi, but the first printing of Melville's other three Harper books had been a thousand copies more.
Melville's revisions and British editorial revisions
The English edition, set by Bentley's printers from the American page proofs with Melville's revisions and corrections, differs from the American edition in over 700 wordings and thousands of punctuation and spelling changes.
Excluding the preliminaries and the one extract, the three volumes of the English edition came to 927 pages and the single American volume to 635 pages. Accordingly, the dedication to Hawthorne in the American edition — "this book is inscribed to"— became "these volumes are inscribed to" in the English. The table of contents in the English edition generally follows the actual chapter titles in the American edition, but nineteen titles in the American table of contents differ from the titles above the chapters themselves. This list was probably drawn up by Melville himself: the titles of chapters describing encounters of the Pequod with other ships had—apparently to stress the parallelisms between these chapters—been standardized to "The Pequod meets the...," with the exception of the already published 'The Town-Ho's Story'. For unknown reasons, the "Etymology" and "Extracts" were moved to the end of the third volume. An epigraph from Paradise Lost, taken from the second of the two quotations from that work in the American edition, appears on the title page of each of the three English volumes. Melville's involvement with this rearrangement is not clear: if it was Bentley's gesture toward accommodating Melville, as Tanselle suggests, its selection put an emphasis on the quotation Melville may not have agreed with.
The largest of Melville's revisions is the addition to the English edition of a 139-word footnote in Chapter 87 explaining the word "gally". The edition also contains six short phrases and some sixty single words lacking in the American edition. In addition, there are about thirty-five changes that produce genuine improvements, as opposed to mere corrections: "Melville may not have made every one of the changes in this category, but it seems certain that he was responsible for the great majority of them."
British censorship and missing "Epilogue"
The British publisher hired one or more revisers who were, in the evaluation of scholar Steven Olsen-Smith, responsible for "unauthorized changes ranging from typographical errors and omissions to acts of outright censorship." The expurgations fall into four categories, ranked according to the apparent priorities of the censor:
- Sacrilegious passages, more than 1200 words. Attributing human failures to God was grounds for excision or revision, as was comparing human shortcomings to divine ones. For example in chapter 28, "Ahab", Ahab stands with "a crucifixion" in his face" was revised to "an apparently eternal anguish";
- Sexual matters, including the sex life of whales and even Ishmael's worried anticipation of the nature of Queequeg's underwear, as well as allusions to fornication or harlots, and "our hearts' honeymoon" (in relation to Ishmael and Queequeg) Chapter 95, however, "The Cassock", referring to the whale's genital organ, was untouched, perhaps because of Melville's indirect language.
- Remarks "belittling royalty or implying a criticism of the British." This meant the exclusion of the complete chapter 25, a "Postscript" on the use of sperm oil at coronations;
- Perceived grammatical or stylistic anomalies were treated with "a highly conservative interpretation of rules of 'correctness'."
These expurgations also meant that any corrections or revisions Melville may have marked upon these passages are now lost.
The final difference in the material not already plated is that the "Epilogue," and thus Ishmael's miraculous survival, is omitted from the British edition. Obviously the epilogue was not an afterthought supplied too late for the English edition, for it is referred to in "The Castaway": "in the sequel of the narrative, it will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself." Why the "Epilogue" is missing is unknown. Since there was nothing objectionable in it, most likely it was somehow lost by Bentley's printer when the "Etymology" and "Extracts" were moved.
Last-minute change of title
After the sheets had been sent, Melville changed the title. Probably late in September, Allan sent Bentley two pages of proof with a letter of which only a draft survives which informed him that Melville "has determined upon a new title & dedication—Enclosed you have proof of both—It is thought here that the new title will be a better selling title." After expressing his hope that Bentley would receive this change in time, Allan said that "Moby-Dick is a legitimate title for the book, being the name given to a particular whale who if I may so express myself is the hero of the volume." Biographer Hershel Parker suggests that the reason for the change was that Harper's had two years earlier published a book with a similar title, The Whale and His Captors.
Changing the title was not a problem for the American edition, since the running heads throughout the book only showed the titles of the chapters, and the title page, which would include the publisher's name, could not be printed until a publisher was found. In October Harper's New Monthly Magazine printed chapter 54, "The Town-Ho's Story," with a footnote saying: "From The Whale. The title of a new work by Mr. Melville." The one surviving leaf of proof, "a 'trial' page bearing the title 'The Whale' and the Harper imprint," shows that at this point, after the publisher had been found, the original title still stood. When Allan's letter arrived, no sooner than early October, Bentley had already announced The Whale in both the Athenaem and the Spectator of 4 and 11 October. Probably to accommodate Melville, Bentley inserted a half-title page in the first volume only, which reads "The Whale; or, Moby Dick."
Sales and earnings
The British printing of 500 copies sold fewer than 300 within the first four months. In 1852, some remaining sheets were bound in a cheaper casing, and in 1853 there were still enough sheets left to issue a cheap edition in one volume. Bentley lost half on Melville's advance of ₤150. Harper's first printing was 2,915 copies, including the standard 125 review copies. The selling price was $1.50, about a fifth of the price of the British three-volume edition. About 1,500 copies were sold within eleven days, and then sales slowed down to less than 300 the next year. After three years the first edition was still available, almost 300 copies of which were lost when a fire broke out at the firm in December 1853. In 1855 a second printing of 250 copies was issued, in 1863 a third of 253 copies, and finally in 1871 a fourth printing of 277 copies, which sold so slowly that no new printing was ordered. Moby-Dick was out of print during the last four years of Melville's life, having sold 2,300 in its first year and a half and on average 27 copies a year for the next 34 years, totaling 3,215 copies.
Melville's earnings from the book add up to $1,260: the ₤150 advance from Bentley was equivalent to $703, and the American printings earned him $556, which was one hundred dollars less than he earned from any of his five previous books. Melville's widow received another $81 when the United States Book Company issued the book and sold almost 1,800 copies between 1892 and 1898.