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The Mass-Market Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird Is Dead

12 March 2016

From The New Republic:

On Monday, February 29, a judge in Monroe County, Alabama sealed Harper Lee’s will from public view. The motion was filed by the Birmingham law firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, which was acting on behalf of Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer and the executor of her estate.

The decision to seal the will became public last Friday, and it was immediately controversial. This has been true of every legal move involving Lee and Carter over the last few years, even before the furor following the announcement, in February of last year, that Carter had “discovered” a lost sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.

. . . .

We may never know what Lee’s will stipulates, but the estate’s first action in the wake of Lee’s death is both bold and somewhat baffling: The New Republic has obtained an email from Hachette Book Group, sent on Friday, March 4 to booksellers across the country, revealing that Lee’s estate will no longer allow publication of the mass-market paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.

According to the email, which a number of booksellers in multiple states have confirmed that they received a variation of, no other publisher will be able to produce the edition either, meaning there will no longer be a mass-market version of To Kill a Mockingbird available in the United States. Mass-market paperbacks are smaller and significantly cheaper than trade paperbacks—sometimes called “airport books,” mass-market paperbacks are typically available in non-bookstore retail outlets, like airports and supermarkets. The most popular mass-market paperback of the last few years is almost certainly the stout paperbacks of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Another place people are likely to encounter mass-market paperbacks is in schools, where they are popular due to their low cost.

. . . .

Why does this matter? Mass-market books are significantly cheaper than their trade paperback counterparts. Hachette’s mass-market paperback of TKAM retails for $8.99, while the trade paperbacks published by Hachette’s rival HarperCollins go for $14.99 and $16.99. Unsurprisingly, the more accessible mass-market paperback sellssignificantly more copies than the trade paperback: According to Nielsen BookScan, the mass-market paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 55,376 copies since January 1, 2016, while HarperCollins’s trade paperback editions have sold 22,554 copies over the same period.

. . . .

Of course, the book will still be available in any public library in the country, and used copies are available on Amazon for prices as low as 40 cents (plus shipping and handling). But the disappearance of the mass-market edition could have a significant impact on schools. The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is both so accessible to young readers and so widely taught in America is crucial to its cultural importance. In 1988, the National Council of Teachers of English reported that To Kill a Mockingbird was taught in a whopping 74 percent of schools and that “Only Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Huckleberry Finn were assigned more often.” Today, To Kill a Mockingbird has almost certainly surpassed the controversial Finn as the most assigned novel in America’s middle- and high schools, and those often cash-strapped schools are far more likely to buy the cheaper mass-market edition than the more expensive trade paperback. According to the email sent by Hachette to booksellers, “more than two-thirds of the 30 million copies sold worldwide since publication have been Hachette’s low-priced edition.”

Without a mass-market option, schools will likely be forced to pay higher prices for bulk orders of the trade paperback edition—and given the perilous state of many school budgets, that could very easily lead to it being assigned in fewer schools.

. . . .

It’s unclear why Lee’s estate would make a decision that so directly threatens the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird, by damaging the link between the book and schools, and the email from Hachette offers no answers. The text of one email obtained by theNew Republic suggests that the mass-market edition will no longer be published “per the author’s wishes,” while an attached PDF states something slightly different: “As of 4/25/16 there will no longer be a mass-market edition of To Kill a Mockingbirdavailable from any publisher in the U.S. as per the wishes of the author’s estate.” Neither Hachette nor HarperCollins would comment on the Lee estate, and requests for comment sent to both Tonja Carter and her attorney were not returned.

Link to the rest at The New Republic and thanks to Nathan and others for the tip.

Books in General, Legal Stuff

28 Comments to “The Mass-Market Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird Is Dead”

  1. Wow. Just wow. Sad that Lee will most likely come to be known for money grubbing.

  2. When did publishers start doing anything that’s in keeping with the wishes of the author, whether alive or dead?

  3. You have got to be bloody kidding me!!! No way. I refuse to believe this was a legit request from the author. Call me a conspiracy theorist but no, just no.

    • I’m not one for conspiracy theories, either. But I also can’t think of a plausible reason Lee would have asked for this to happen. It makes no sense.

      I can absolutely believe an unscrupulous agent led her astray, and tricked her into thinking that this move would protect her work. Or that her heirs are perhaps ‘heirs.’ It’s hard to believe that whoever these people are, they’re thinking of Lee first and foremost.

  4. “It’s unclear why Lee’s estate would make a decision that so directly threatens the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird”

    Maybe because of the way certain people milked it for all they could get out of it and are still milking it?

    Rest in peace.

  5. Lee’s attitude has always been odd when it comes to MOCKINGBIRD. Her refusal to talk to the media, ending her writing career at its “peak”.

    It is not impossible that she actually wanted the book out of schools.

    • No. She hated when the book got banned from schools and loved that children were learning from it. This is all on that horrible executor of her estate.

  6. Personally, I see this as a sign that the big publishers are getting desperate.

    • You’re assuming it is strictly the publisher’s doing.
      What if it really is the estate and it is really executing Lee’s desires?

      If it were the publisher acting on their own, the estate could sue for being used as a front.

      Mind you, the BPHs have been steadily deprecating the mass market format for years, reserving it solely for reprints of top sellers, much as it was in the beginning. Their reader-spend focus prefers selling fewer copies at $15 anyway, so an actual request from the estate would find little resistance.

      One point to consider is royalty rates are much lower for mass market. And there is no telling what uses the estate is going to put the money to. It could be a money grab to benefit some foundation or a charity.

  7. I’d like to know who the heirs are.

  8. This is just one reason why it’s a good idea to have a child.

    A son or daughter would have protected their mother from rapacious lawyers and publishers and cared about Harper Lee’s legacy, rather than wringing every dollar out of her that they could.

  9. Sounds like a classic case of having a captive audience for a required textbook, and jacking the price accordingly.

    • I believe we have a winner. How many people buy Mockingbird voluntarily and read it merely for their own enjoyment? I suspect, far fewer than are forced to buy it because it is a set text at school.

      • But most of the set text copies of To Kill a Mockingbird are bought by schools, not students. When the text setter is the text purchaser, how easy to set another text. (Most school districts I am familiar with set a list of novels and individual schools select from that list for their purchases.)

        • are they purchased by schools or by students?

          I’ll bet that a large percentage of the books that you think are purchased by schools are instead purchased by the students now, as a cost cutting/shifting measure by the schools.

          If you go into any B&N around the beginning of a school year, you will see large stacks of the ‘classics’ sitting there for students to purchase. I somehow doubt that the students are buying so many of so few titles on their own.

          • In my son’s high school, the books are provided by the school (and must be returned, like textbooks). However, some AP classes assign “extra” books, especially for summer reading, and these the student must pay for.

  10. I see a resurgence of the Pirates: anyone who needs a copy can get the pirated version and have it printed pod.

  11. Does anybody know the state of her estate’s finances?
    Medical bills, income taxes, property taxes, estate taxes…
    Dying ain’t cheap; putting it off even less so.

    Again, until we know where the money is going…

    (Remember the mass market royalty rate typically runs single digit and it is a very old contract.)

  12. Does the Author’s contract (in this case) give her (or her estate) the ability to dictate to the publisher which formats will be available? Or is that the publishers decision alone?

    After all the discussion of onerous publishing industry contracts here on TPV, I had to wonder…

    • It is a very old contract from the 50’s, before the corporate era and their “industry standard” contracts. Obviously amended since (given that an ebook edition exists). It just might have specific clauses for different formats; In those days paperback rights were often negotiated separately and even farmed out, like audio books today.

      Originally it was with Lippincott, which in 1976 was bought out by Harper and Row which in 1990 was bought by News Corp and later merged into HarperCollins.

  13. This is inference only from both general and closely-related-but-not-Ms-Lee experience with a number of the players.*

    I strongly suspect that this is an instance involving intransigence on both current sides.

    The particular string of publishers in question has some… strange ideas of what constitutes “negotiation in good faith,” the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and timely and accurate royalty reporting (especially regarding returns against reserves). Combine this with apparent self-dealing in the original mass-market-paperback deal for the book (remember, 1950s-era fiction contracts separated paperback from casebound rights, and preconglomeration that usually meant that the paperback publications were usually under a different corporate umbrella), and I infer that the mass-market-paperback deal was at best somewhat below market, even without regard to its longterm bestseller status, and that a substantial and probably excessive reserve against returns was and is being charged against royalties otherwise due.

    I also have less than complete confidence in the, umm, fidelity and effectiveness of the agents/agency/agencies involved on Ms Lee’s behalf over the years; the obvious stuff is not the most unfavorable thing that could be inferred (although I specifically disclaim knowledge of Ms Lee’s own affairs).

    Combine this, and the ire of the estate is understandable. There isn’t enough information to understand the estate’s reactions to its circumstances, and probably cannot be: It’s not just “general privacy,” but required confidentiality, that is at issue. So I’m not saying that withdrawing the mmpb edition is justified, or a good or bad thing; I’m saying that there’s much more here than there appears. And nobody — nobody — is going to reach a decent understanding of what is really going on by relying on outraged statements vetted by various publicity wonks.

    * Disclosure: I’ve personally been across the v from Bradley Arant a number of times in the last couple of decades, and I have carefully filtered those experiences out of what follows. And “filtered” is the best I can do: Confidentiality in settlement provisions means that looking at just court decisions would distort things rather seriously.

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