Harper Lee's Estate's First Order Of Business: Kill Off The Cheap Version Of To Kill A Mockingbird

from the that-seems-problematic dept

To Kill a Mockingbird is obviously one of the most well-known and widely read books in American literature. And, of course, there’s been some controversy of late around its author, Harper Lee, who passed away last month. Much of the controversy focused on the decision last year to publish Go Set a Watchman, which was initially described as something of a long lost “sequel” to TKAM, but which it was later admitted was actually an early draft of TKAM. Many argued that Lee didn’t actually intend for the book to be published, and that she may have been taken advantage of by those around her. Either way, the controversy is now growing, following Lee’s death, as what appears to be the first and second orders of business for Lee’s estate was to (1) have the details of her will sealed and (2) stop publishing the mass market paperback version of To Kill a Mockingbird, making sure that the only new versions of the book that will be available will be the noticeably more expensive trade paperbacks.

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.

As the story at The New Republic notes, this could have a major impact on the ability of schools to assign the book to students — a key part of what made the book such a classic American novel:

…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. (Schools typically receive a bulk sale rate that gives them more than 50 percent off of the list price of a book?they most likely pay less than $4.50 per copy of the mass-market paperback of TKAM, whereas a copy of the trade paperback would cost no more than $7.50.) Hachette is upfront about this possibility: a bullet point in the email reads, ?The disappearance of the iconic mass-market edition is very disappointing to us, especially as we understand this could force a difficult situation for schools and teachers with tight budgets who cannot afford the larger, higher priced paperback edition that will remain in the market.?

Of course, no one is denying that the Lee Estate (whoever is running it) has the legal right to do this. As the article also notes, while it will almost certainly mean much fewer book sales, the Estate itself will likely make more money, since the sales of the more expensive books will bring in more cash per sale. But from a cultural perspective, it’s still rather depressing and unfortunate. The point of copyright, again, is supposed to be to help create those incentives to get these works spread out and available to the public. And yet here’s it’s being used in the opposite manner, yet again.

And the most damning of all in this is that when Lee published the book back in 1960, she knew that the absolute longest the book would be under copyright would be 56 years — or, right up until this year. Yes, the incentive to Lee to write the book was such that it was perfectly fine for her knowing that on January 1st, 2017, the book would go into the public domain. Unfortunately, thanks to the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, it’ll be many, many decades before the book actually goes into the public domain, if it ever does (if my calculations are correct, the book should hit the public domain in 2056 under current law).

And here we now see the clear market distortion of copyright. It’s obvious that Lee did not need these additional four decades of copyright protection because, after all, she wrote the book having no clue that copyright would be extended in that manner. So there was no additional “incentive” necessary here. And yet, rather than going into the public domain in 9 months, allowing the book to be distributed freely on the internet or in a wide variety of super inexpensive mass market paperbacks (like other public domain material), instead, such versions of the book are being liquidated, and the only new copies available will be much more expensive. The gap between what the book should cost as a public domain book and what it will cost now as only a trade paperback — for the next forty years — is a blatant tax on the public created entirely by copyright law.

And, yes, I’m sure some will argue that there are plenty of used copies of the book, along with libraries. But this will clearly end up costing the book-buying public a significant sum of money. That’s why the estate is doing this. And it’s difficult to see how that fits with the intent or purpose of copyright law, even if it fits under what the law does allow.

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Comments on “Harper Lee's Estate's First Order Of Business: Kill Off The Cheap Version Of To Kill A Mockingbird”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Regulation of monopoly

Of course, no one is denying that the Lee Estate (whoever is running it) has the legal right to do this.

8 Anne, c. 19 (1710)

IV. Provided nevertheless, and it is hereby further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That if any bookseller or booksellers, printer or printers, shall, after the said five and twentieth day of March, one thousand seven hundred and ten, set a price upon, or sell, or expose to sale, any book or books at such a price or rate as shall be conceived by any person or persons to be too high and unreasonable; it shall and may be lawful for any person or persons, to make complaint thereof to . . . ; who, or any one of them, shall and have hereby full power and authority, from time to time, to send for, summon, or call before him or them such bookseller or booksellers, printer or printers, and to examine and enquire of the reason of the dearness and inhauncement of the price or value of such book or books by him or them so sold or exposed to sale; and if upon such enquiry and examination it shall be found, that the price of such book or books is inhaunced, or any wise too high or unreasonable, then  . . . .

… to examine and enquire of the reason of the dearness and inhauncement of the price …

Anonymous Coward says:

How very uncouth of the estate. I think the education sector should boycott any and all future purchases of this book and strike it from the curriculum. Perhaps they can use it as an example to their students on how to boycott something that may not be illegal, but is morally reprehensible. Heaven knows people need a lesson in boycotting companies that do wrong by them.

David says:

Re: Sealing her will?

Well, it’s obvious that Harper Lee, had she wanted to maximize the profit of her heirs or “estate”, would have shut down affordable distribution of “To Kill a Mockingbird” during her life time. And this was her only book.

She always stated it was important to her to have written it. And it did not sound like “because of all the money it made me”.

She’s hardly cold and her “heirs” and “estate” feast on her heart blood.

David says:

How does that not fit with copyright law?

It fits perfectly. Copyright law is intended to create a windfall and permanent operating basis for long-lived corporations responsible for exclusively sucking out corpses rather than letting their heritage become public.

You are confusing copyright law with the original copyright act providing the angle of attack. As Archimedes stated: give me a balanced scale and a prybar, and then let’s see what is rightfully yours.

Anonymous Coward says:

No problem, I won’t be buying the book and will encourage the local school to drop it from their curriculum. A less widely exposed book is read less, hence less sales. It will fade from being widely read to no one reads it. That will happen before the copyright expires. The estate will reap it’s just rewards and we can all be happy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Author's estate sets price

Does Hachette actually have publishing agreements that permit the author to set the price? The article says no one is disputing that the estate has the right to do this, but that doesn’t mean they have the right. Hachette is a big advocate of high price books. They went to the mat with Amazon to fight for agency pricing, so they could keep ebook prices high – and they won, well, a Pyrrhic victory because their sales have declined so much they’ve lost market share with their high prices. Pricing To Kill A Mockingbird very high seems like it’s right up Hachette’s alley,now that Harper Lee isn’t around to object. So, let’s see a copy of the publishing contract before ascribing blame for this to the estate (well, they get blame if they stand by and don’t object.)

BTW, current pricing on Amazon — $10,99 for the ebook (price set by Hachette as publisher which fought to prevent Amazon from discounting) $5.89 for paperback (list $8.99 but discounted by Amazon). So let’s please not give Hachette a pass on the pricing of this book.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

This is what happens when you let the maximalists get away with characterising their temporary monopoly privilege as property. The way they see it, TKAM is their property and they may do with it as they see fit.

We need to push back and remind them there’s a social contract element to their privilege, i.e. it’s TEMPORARY and intended to enter the public domain at some point. This salient fact has been pushed aside by successive waves of legal precedent and legislation to the point where copyright law (and the public’s understanding thereof) has almost completely diverged from its place in the Constitution.

Until we have gained control of the narrative to the point where it is widely understood that unscrupulous, greedy people are fencing off cultural output and holding it hostage by claiming absolute property rights over it, we will be forever on the back foot complaining about how horrible the situation is but unable to do much about it.

The tide needs to turn, and it needs to turn now.

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