Dodsley was born near Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, where his father was master of the free school. He is said to have been apprenticed to a stocking-weaver in Mansfield, from whom he ran away, going into service as a footman. Profits and fame from his early literary works enabled Dodsley to establish himself with the help of his friends (Alexander Pope lent him £100) as a bookseller at the sign of Tully's Head in Pall Mall, London, in 1735.
He soon became one of the foremost publishers of the day. One of his first publications was Samuel Johnson's London for which he paid ten guineas in 1738. He published many of Johnson's works, and he suggested and helped to finance Johnson's Dictionary. Pope also made over to Dodsley his interest in his letters. In 1738, the publication of Paul Whitehead's Manners was voted scandalous by the House of Lords and led to Dodsley's imprisonment for a brief period. Dodsley published for Edward Young and Mark Akenside, and in 1751 brought out Thomas Gray's Elegy. He was also publisher to the Rev. Joseph Spence and Joseph Warton, and collaborated with John Baskerville, the innovative Birmingham printer.
In 1759 Dodsley retired, leaving the conduct of the business to his brother James (1724-1797), with whom he had been in partnership for many years. He died and was buried at Durham while he was on a visit to his friend Joseph Spence.
In 1729 Dodsley published his first work, Servitude: a Poem written by a Footman, with a preface and postscript ascribed to Daniel Defoe; and a collection of short poems, A Muse in Livery, or the Footman's Miscellany, was published by subscription in 1732, Dodsley's patrons comprising many persons of high rank. This was followed by a satirical farce called The Toy-Shop (Covent Garden, 1735), in which the toymaker indulges in moral observations on his wares, a hint which was probably taken from Thomas Randolph's Conceited Pedlar. In 1737 his King and the Miller of Mansfield, a "dramatic tale" of King Henry II, was produced at Drury Lane, and received with much applause; the sequel, Sir John Cockle at Court, a farce, appeared in 1738. Dodsley displayed his egalitarian leanings with the anonymous The Chronicle of the Kings of England by "Nathan ben Saddi" (1740), rewriting English history in the style of the King James Version of the Pentateuch. The Oeconomy of Human Life appeared in 1750, a collection of moral precepts attributed to ancient authors in India and China, set out in a King James Version style of English attributed to an anonymous translator.
Dodsley is, however, best known as the editor of two collections, one of plays, and one of poems. The first was the Select Collection of Old Plays (12 vols., 1744; 2nd edition with notes by Isaac Reed, 12 vols., 1780; 4th edition, by William Carew Hazlitt, 1874-1876, 15 vols.).
Dodsley's collection of poems, A collection of Poems by Several Hands (1748, 3 vols.) was 'to preserve to the public those poetical performances, which seemed to merit a longer remembrance than what would probably be secured to them by the Manner wherein they were originally published' (Collection of Poems, 1748, vol. 1.iii-iv). Given his literary circle, he was able to fill three volumes of poetry by the time of the first edition on 15 January 1748. By March 1755 it had entered four editions and he added a fourth volume, and in 1758 volumes five and six, hence the change in titles.
In 1745 he published a collection of his dramatic works, and some poems which had been issued separately, in one volume under the modest title of Trifles. This was followed by The Triumph of Peace, a Masque occasioned by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1749); a fragment, entitled Agriculture, of a long tedious poem in blank verse on Public Virtue (1753); The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green (acted at Drury Lane 1739, printed 1741); and an ode, Melpomene (1751). His tragedy of Cleone (1758) had a long run at Covent Garden, 2000 copies being sold on the day of publication, and it passed through four editions within the year.
Dodsley also founded several literary periodicals: The Museum (1746-1767, 3 vols.); The Preceptor containing a general course of education (1748, 2 vols.), with an introduction by Dr Johnson; The World (1753-1756, 4 vols.); and The Annual Register, founded in 1758 with Edmund Burke as editor. To these various works, Horace Walpole, Akenside, Soame Jenyns, Lord Lyttelton, Lord Chesterfield, Burke and others were contributors.
He produced and published more successful works towards the end of his life. The Select Fables of Esop (1761), which remained in print in various editions for many decades, for which he and some of his friends wrote additional fables. The Works of William Shenstone (3 vols., 1764-1769) was brought out as a memorial after Shenstone's sudden death, and was very selectively edited so as to show that writer at his best.