A pot-boiler is a book or other work of art produced for the express purpose of making money, rather than for any artistic merit. The imagery behind the term is of providing food for the pot or table. The term dates to the late 18th century. From painter James Barry’s 1783 An Account of a Series of Pictures:
Some others...in great measure compensate for the heaps of inconsequential trash, or pot-boilers (as they are called) which are obtruded upon the public view.
The use of the imagery of keeping food on the stove is even older. Potboiling is found in use as early as 1775 meaning to provide for life’s necessities. From Samuel J. Pratt’s 1775 Liberal Opinions:
Send I say the 1l. 1s. just for the pot-boiling business, and who knows what tomorrow may bring forth.
And there is this from Peter Heylin’s 1661 Ecclesia Restavrata:
So poor, that it is hardly able to keep the Pot boiling for a Parsons Dinner.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton