Publishing the Golden Age

crime-classics-nov-14I posted earlier in the week about Bodies from the Library. One of the talks I enjoyed most, as a publisher myself, was Publishing the Golden Age, which gave me a severe case of career-envy.

David Brawn of HarperCollins is the publisher responsible for Agatha Christie amongst others, and launched their lovely facsimile editions. He is currently working on the Collins Crime Club. Rob Davies, whom I interviewed earlier in the year, looks after the BL’s vintage crime list (due to publish one book a month for the next 2 years).

Doing the rights thing

Rights are a crucial part of their jobs. Rob described the detective work required to find copyright holders – sometimes as simple as phoning an agent, sometimes requiring the use of genealogical websites to locate unsuspecting descendants. Both described the frustration of finding the rights to a desirable author tied up by another publisher, possibly squandering those rights on poor-quality editions, or possibly just making it hard to publish the complete works. Edmund Crispin has three titles published by HarperCollins, three by Vintage, and three by Bloomsbury – a nightmare for the completist book-buyer.

3, 2, 1… sold

They also talked about book design. You have three seconds to sell a book (first to the bookseller; then to the reader) so design is crucial. Rob said they had hit a winning formula with their railway poster designs, and described how their initial list of classics sold much better once they had rebranded them.

I was surprised that publishing film and TV tie-in editions wasn’t necessarily a recipe for success – although film worked better than TV. David pointed out that people actively didn’t buy books if they thought they had already seen the story on TV.

PC Plodding

A good question was about editorial standards. Do they alter books to take out offensive terms? Both publishers agreed they weren’t in the business of rewriting the past. The British Library doesn’t edit, but it does distance itself from any non-PC views expressed in the books.

David spoke about the especially difficult decisions surrounding Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. In an earlier edition he published the Frank J. Green nursery rhyme in the front, to make it clear Christie was merely using a commonly heard verse. Later he was asked to remove it by the family. Both said if a book was too riddled with questionable attitudes, they simply moved on. There are enough good books out there to miss a few.

I’m interested in people’s thoughts on this, so I’ve splashed out on a poll (see below)…


About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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17 Responses to Publishing the Golden Age

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Really interesting, Rich! Thanks!


  2. curtis evans says:

    As I recollect in And then There Were None, the American edition at least, publishers have removed some antisemitic references by the very unsympathetic Philip Lombard. I think this was a terrible call, because those references served to highlight what a repellent character he is.

    But there’s an understandable fear these days that readers will be put off by this sort of thing, though I am concerned about the loss to social history if these passages are simply dropped down the memory hole.


  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    *Never* edit a classic – it’s a product of its time and I find it more offensive that I’m not credited as having enough intelligence as a reader to know this and to deal with it accordingly. I have my original version of that Christie book and will stick with it. We can’t sanitise the past – we need to acknowledge what it was like, acknowledge that it was wrong and move forward in the knowledge that we must do better in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. FictionFan says:

    Hmm…I’m torn. My heart says never, but my head says I prefer And Then There Were None to the original title. I guess I’d say it’s OK to make a change like that where, in fact, it’s not particularly relevant to the plot or characterisation and can be replaced easily. But where outdated attitudes are an integral part of the storyline, then no, I don’t think that should be edited out. I think it’s a decision that would really have to be taken on a book by book basis, and I agree with them that some books are so offensive to our present-day sensibilities that, unless they really are outstanding in some other way, why re-publish? Plenty more out there…


  5. Steve Powell says:

    I think judicious editing is called for. A good theatre director might trim some of the anti-semitism from The Merchant of Venice and if you can edit Shakespeare you can edit any writer, as long as there is a clear intro spelling out some of the changes.


    • Of course in the case of theater the original text survives intact on the page, presumably.

      One thing I do favor is getting rid of the stupid lisp attributed to Jews so often in English fiction of that period (and earlier).


    • dfordoom says:

      I don’t understand why anyone would be afraid of encountering views that they disagree with. If you’re confident of your own opinions it shouldn’t bother you. Wanting to censor books tends to suggest doubt and fear.


      • Steve Powell says:

        No one’s suggesting we should reintroduce the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I think it’s more a case of pruning things incidental to the narrative which might be more reflective of values of the time.


  6. Ed says:

    I am against editing classic books. In the past classics have been ‘bowdlerised’ to get rid of sexual references which readers of that era found objectionable. This is the same can of worms. Stage adaptation is different I think. The play is often a starting point, and the director makes their interpretation of it.


  7. I voted ‘never’. I guess if it had been an option I’d have said “only if you make it really clear to readers that they are not reading the original work”. As a reader my primary thing is that I want to know what I’m getting.

    I can’t speak to how people of colour feel if they read a book with overt racism but I am female, was raised Catholic and am of Irish heritage. I’ve read plenty of books (some of them even current) that depict bigotry against all those groups and I have dealt with them on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes I choose not to read the author again, sometimes I chose to accept the book is ‘of its time’ and I can rise above it. The thing that worries me deeply about editing out these now politically incorrect views is that it becomes easy to forget that we collectively used to think that way. And forgetting is the first step to repeating the mistakes of the past. It can be really confronting to read a passage in which ‘people like me’ are abused/treated with disrespect or worse but it is always a good reminder that the world has changed and that we need to stay on top of things to make sure the changes ‘stick’.


  8. My answer to your poll is: almost never, only in exceptional circs. I think to retain the original Christie title of the book would be offensive and unnecessary. But in general, a book should keep unpopular words and opinions unchanged – particularly if they are in dialogue. As Curt says above, it can be making a point about a character.


  9. John says:

    I’m surprised Christie’s book hasn’t been published as TEN LITTLE SOLDIERS over here. I dislike that the poem was changed. The island of course is called Soldier Island as well. Ugh. A similar concern made national headlines over here about ten years ago with HUCKLEBERRY FINN and the repetitive use of the N word in Twain’s classic. I believe there actually are censored editions out there made available for schools without the word. Schools using a copy of that censored book then miss the crucial opportunity to talk about racism in the days of post Civil war era American South. It’s a travesty of education, IMO. Turning a blind eye and trying to make it all go away by erasing the use of an objectionable word in one book. Doesn’t work, never has. It’s foolish, especially with regard to school boards and how they want their teachers to teach.

    My concerns are not only about removing objectionable content or possibly offensive terms but extend to altering *anything* in the book. Begrudgingly, I agreed to change a single word in the reissue of THE STARKENDEN QUEST for Raven’s Head Press because the publisher felt it would confuse the readers. It was “laid” used to describe a certain kind of paper. I guess it also came off as unintentionally vulgar to him but he never said that outright. But as for extensive rewriting or censoring I’m completely against it. I eventually resigned as consulting editor of Raven’s Head when the owner continued to raise questions and concerns about “editing” the books I suggested to be reprinted. He felt one book was maddeningly dull and “poorly written” only because the characters repeatedly address one another by name in their dialogue the same way that soap opera writers create dialogue so that a new viewer will know the names of the characters. He wanted to remove as many of the attributions as possible and “fix” some of the other writing. That was not editing, IMO, it was rewriting a book to suit his personal taste.


  10. neer says:

    As somebody who belongs to a country that was once a colony and where the people were constantly addressed as savages, brutes, half-devils, heathens,and what not, I am against the purging of any book – classic or otherwise. It is an insult to not only the intelligence of the reader but also a sneaky way to ‘white-wash’ the past: as though everything was lovey-dovey and the master-slave equation did not exist.


  11. Keishon says:

    Opinions and attitudes no matter how offensive shouldn’t be changed in books. I consider those books a snapshot of history and it’s always interesting to me even if it offends me but I have a pretty thick skin.


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