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Episode XI: "They could have put a blank white cover with her name and title and it would sell well"

Published 4/22/15
In this installment, I speak with Sarah Weinman over at Publishers Marketplace. Topics include literary estates, the Copyright Term Extension Act, Harper Lee, her average day, Amazon-Hachette, her favorite 2015 books so far, social media’s impact on her job & more.

I’m here with Sarah Weinman, the News Editor over at Publishers Marketplace. Sarah’s also served as the crime fiction columnist at the Los Angeles Times, edited an anthology of stories in the domestic suspense genre, and wrote a great piece in The Nation on literary brand management.

First things first. We’re nearly a kilomile away—to bridge the digital divide, would you describe where you are and what you see?

I'm sitting in my home office in Brooklyn; the computer's directly in front of me; up above is a framed print of a Marc Chagall painting I'm quite fond of; there's a window to the right.

Beautiful. Let's talk about the piece in The Nation for a bit. The issue of managing (and profiting) from literary estates will seemingly only become more pressing. Can you give the readers the gist of your piece on John Banville (as Benjamin Black) inheriting Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe? Why should we care about what happens when an author turns into an estate (i.e. dies)?

Sure. For years I've been fascinated by literary estates and how an author's work stays in the public consciousness after they die. Because history is fickle, and authors who may be great successes while they live suddenly fall off the map after death. Publishers, especially lately, are concerned about this, because they believe new work always helps sales of the author's previous work. And without new work, those backlist sale plummet.

In your piece, you wrote “All of the shell games and creative licensing are, in the end, about copyright.” As you see it, what’s working about the way copyright works and what’s broken?

Copyright lasts a really long time, especially in the US (70 years after death, or 95 years after some works, to use an easy shorthand.) And that means stuff can be locked up, or heirs want too much money to reissue. Licensed works provide good cash flow to estates, to publishers, to middlemen, those brand management companies I was initially fascinated with.

Can you think of some examples that have been locked away when there's clearly a demand for them?

That's a great question! To answer generally, anyone published in that gray zone, say, 1930s through 1970s in particular. Right now I'm researching a number of forgotten crime novelists whom I'd love to see back in circulation, but not knowing who has the rights means they can't be reissued.

So I take it that, in general, you're for looser copyright restrictions?

Or at least something more resembling how things used to be -- 28 years then a renewal of another 28 years. Sonny Bono did nobody any favors, well except for Disney and corporations.

What exactly did Sonny Bono do? Give us a brief history lesson.

It's the colloquial term for the Copyright Term Extension Act which, in 1998, extended terms. So before it was life of the author plus 50 (or 75 years for something authored by a corporation); now it's life + 70, or 120 years for corp work, or 95 years after publication, whichever came first.

Where do those numbers come from? Do they signify a life? To me they seem somewhat arbitrary.

The general idea is to give enough time for an estate to exploit copyright and not lose out. But 75 or 95 years seems like an unduly long time. It's also why the recent Sherlock Holmes public domain case is so important.

How's that?

What that did was establish definitively that anything Arthur Conan Doyle came up with before 1923 (that's the "demarcation line" copyright-wise) is public domain, which means the estate is upset they will not be able to make more money. And it also means there will be a lot of fun mashups in books/tv/films/etc.

Interesting. Proper management of literary estates has recently become an especially hot topic with the announcement of Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman (though Lee is, of course, alive). The (US) cover is clearly capturing another time period, one when Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s really hard to imagine the marketing team for the book pushing the contents of the book, what it might add to the canon, over its existence. Does this take away from the conversation about the book? Or am I just being sensitive: a book sold is a book read?

Well it is important to point out Harper Lee is alive, so that's not an estate question!

Duly noted.

But since we're bringing up Go Set a Watchman, that is an example of brand management, which is controversial because of all of the existing controversy around Lee's state of mental health and earlier lawsuits and the like.

Still, this is the biggest book HarperCollins will publish in 2015. It will sell well. They could have put a blank white cover with her name and title and it would sell well.

Exactly. Does that bother you?

While I'm not 100 percent convinced everything is A-OK, I also see this as more of a corporate publishing story. Here is this woman who published one novel and it still sells about 750,000 copies annually. Fifty-five years post-publication. That's incredible.

And for there to be a new work? Built in audience, chance to reach new readers, and for HarperCollins (and in the UK, Random House) this is a big, big deal for them. As in, a line item in the budget. Discussed at investor conferences, that sort of thing.

Elaborate on everything not being "A-OK".

I still wonder at the role that Tonja Carter, Harper Lee's lawyer, is playing here, but what I've learned strongly suggests someone who is still grappling with how global Harper Lee really is, and that she may not be fully reconciled to this fact. Because Harper Lee, the brand, is a lot different from Harper Lee, 88-year-old lady in a nursing home in Monroeville.

How does the law deem someone able to control their own estate?

That's a complicated question that varies from state to state (and country to country) and I am not a lawyer, so I think we're getting a little beyond scope here...

Okay, fair. Let’s switch to your day-to-day, as the News Editor of Publishers Marketplace, home of Publishers Lunch, “the most widely read daily dossier in publishing”. What’s the bulk of your position there? How is your time spent?

So I'll use today as an example. I wake up early-ish -- 7 to 7:30 ideally -- and look at news feeds through RSS and Twitter and see what the day's stories will turn out to be. Today it was Scholastic reporting financial results, the death of a major literary figure, and other personnel news. I write up stories and compile our two daily newsletters, Publishers Lunch (for free subscribers) and Publishers Lunch Deluxe (paid subscribers) while also working on other projects.

What defines “newsworthiness” for Publishers Lunch? Have you seen that definition switch? Do you think it will in the future?

Over the last few years the news has really moved towards digital (ebooks, now at a plateau) business (mergers & acquisitions in particular) and legal (the Department of Justice's lawsuit against Apple, now in appeal.) So it switches all the time and I expect that to be the case in future. How? Hard to tell. But the job is never, ever boring.

What's the most exciting type of story to be swarmed by? What type of story would you never see again if you had your choice?

I love being surprised. So big reorganizations of publishers are interesting to work on, especially if there is an out-of-left-field change (a recent reorg at Penguin counts.) I enjoy going to court, though I don't hanker to cover a weeks-long trial again like Apple vs. DOJ

How about the Hachette-Amazon story? Always thrilling or stale by mid-summer?

That was a real complex story to cover, mostly because everyone was surprised how long it dragged on. I was most interested, personally, by Amazon's PR missteps because usually they get that so right.

What were their PR missteps?

Mostly not understanding how major, bestselling authors who had big fan bases were impacted and could act accordingly. The Authors United petition was not something they bargained for. The website they set up to try to counteract that was...misguided. But ultimately this was a dispute between two business partners, and since it was resolved, with multi-year contracts, things are a lot calmer.

Fair. It seems like "big industry news" today means something that happened in a boardroom. Some people see the publishing world as “less romantic” than it used to be (as if film or advertising or finance hasn’t also become less sexy). Do you agree with this assessment? What do you owe it to?

Book publishing involves big corporations and politics like every other workplace. Many are beholden to shareholders through their owners. Not all the big publishers are created equal; the needs of Penguin Random House are very different from HarperCollins from Simon & Schuster from Hachette from Macmillan (the last the only fully private company)

But in terms of "less romantic?" All I know is, great books are being published. I've read a number of marvelous novels already in 2015, we're not even at the end of March.

Some of your favorites?

I'll stick to 2015 books only. Litfic: After Birth by Elisa Albert; The Sellout by Paul Beatty; Welcome to Braggsville by T Geronimo Johnson; Delicious Foods by James Hannaham; Honeydew by Edith Pearlman.

Nonfic: Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald; crime fiction: Hush Hush by Laura Lippman, Canary by Duane Swierczynski, Not Even Past by Dave White.

I didn't mention books yet to be out, but there are great ones coming.

Obviously my job is to look at publishing at the macro level. But micro is the books, and they are the engine publishers need.

Excellent. I get the impression (and also hope) that independent presses are making a greater dent in books the public gets their hands on. Is this mindset a product of the blogs I frequent, or do you agree?

I agree because of the presence of independent bookstores. Whether there is a "renaissance" depends on who you ask, but more stores are opening than ever before by incredibly smart people who are savvy about marketing and social media and who love, love, love books.

And independent bookstores want to push and promote independent presses, so it creates this great positive feedback loop.

Going back to Publishers Lunch for a minute, it boasts the “attention of over 40,000 publishing professionals who read Lunch every day”, but The Publishers Lunch twitter has 234K followers (as of this interview). Which is the more impressive figure? If I say the proliferation of publishing news relies equally on social media and traditional media, will you call me a short attention-spanned millenial, or a cardigan-wearing luddite?

Our social media presence is not something we place top priority on, but having the reach of that many people is good and I would never question that! Plus I love twitter and I use it for news and to find and cultivate sources and keep track of the book industry. It's indispensable.

So the Publishers Marketplace mindset is that traditional reporting comes first?

The way I characterize PL and Publishers Marketplace is as an information and intelligence service for the book trade. We provide information in as many ways as we can, through reporting news, databases, deal reports, giving people in the trade access to Bookscan data, among others.

Twitter is a way for us to disseminate news so it is a useful tool.

I see, so social media is a bit more populist where your focus is industry-centric?

Let's put it another way: we produce much of our news behind a paywall. So that is not always compatible with what Twitter users want. But if there is a pressing breaking exclusive story then yes we want people to have access to it and Twitter is a good way to reach those people.

Got it. Can I assume that paywall structure is going to stick around for a while?

You can assume that.

Alright, well we're nearly at time. Any closing thoughts?

Almost every conversation I have with publishing professionals ends with some variant of "we're in interesting times." And we most certainly are and I'm glad for that, because it makes my job exciting and ever-changing. Thanks so much for having me on here, Andrew.

Great ending, and thanks for your words, Sarah.