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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Filed Under: availability, copyright, culture, harper lee, mass market paperback, money, public domain, to kill a mockingbird, trade paperback


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  1. icon
    Whatever (profile), 15 Mar 2016 @ 1:33am

    Re: Author's estate sets price

    .. and honestly, at $5.89 it's a screaming bargain for a new printed book.

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