I 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.
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)…