You’ve heard by now that HarperCollins will be publishing a “new” book by Harper Lee, the author of one of my favourite books, To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee, renowned for being reclusive and very protective of her work, may not have made the decision to publish, and that raises some interesting questions. Questions about art ownership and intellectual property and commerce in the creative economy.
The decision to publish is a commercial one. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating because I still hear the hateful phrase “art for the sake of art” more often than not. So I’m going to go on a little tear about that phrase, then I’m going to talk about publishing as a commercial creative production, then I’m going to (hopefully) draw the whole thing together, and back to Harper Lee. Are you ready for this? Okay. Let’s go.
As an artist, I do not “do art for the sake of art”. I do not “make art for the sake of art”. I’m not into that bullshit belly-button-gazing phrase because I don’t know any artists who do “art for the sake of art”. In fact, I don’t even know what that phrase means. People tend to use it to mean “people who create things without an intent to commercialize/monetize their works”. That is a very different thing from “art for the sake of art” (hereafter referred to as AFTSOA).
Some artists, and many hobbyists, may decide to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars creating works with no intent of ever recouping any costs at all. You know who’s the worst for this? WRITERS. We undervalue our work *all the time*. We think nothing of tossing a blog post up or a piece of fan fiction or several chapters of our next book because we are under the mistaken impression that if you put your work out there for free consumption, we’ll become well known and publishers will start beating down our doors to get our next manuscript. I don’t want to be a poopypants here, but that’s not going to happen.
Chances are *pretty good* that the next Stephen King or Alice Munro is not sitting in front of their laptop posting the next eighty chapters of their Lloyd Robertson/Mike Duffy slashfic. And chances are *even better* that Random House is not trolling tumblr to find the new Stephen King or Alice Munro. The reason why Stephen King and Alice Munro are successful is because they devoted their lives to their art. They had little or no income. They worked shit jobs to pay the bills so that they could spend their time doing what they’re driven to do – what they can’t NOT do – and artists grok this. We do what we do not because we choose this lifestyle but because we go bats without it.
Ultimately, though, we want to make a living. Ask any artist what their dream is, and I’d put money on them NOT saying “working at a desk job for the rest of my working career”. I bet they’d say something like “being able to quit my job so that I could focus on writing/music/sculpture/theatre career/photography/stand-up comedy”. Some of us are fortunate to find work within our creative sector, and most of us aren’t.
I will concede that there may be some hobbyists (and I make the distinction here between professional artists and hobbyists because professional artists spend decades learning how to be better at what they do) who choose to write stories or make earrings or paint landscapes because it’s cathartic and they never want anyone to see what they do, except maybe their kids and friends. There are people who use art as therapy (and it is a POWERFUL tool in that arena), but those people aren’t professional artists. What makes a professional artist professional is that they have chosen art as their career. Which means they want to make a living at it. Which means they want to get paid.
In order to commercialize artworks, there needs to be some kind of production – visual artists may have their work exhibited in a gallery; musicians make albums and go on tour; and writers’ works are published. The decision to publish is entirely a commercial one. Publishing, even if you’re doing digital publishing, is not easy to do well, and it’s a dear venture. The truth is that people place more value on products they pay for, and if you want your creative product to “get out there” so that “people will read it”, you need more than just a PDF available for download on your website.
Manuscripts need editing, design, sometimes typesetting, marketing, distribution…they need PRODUCTION. And this is where the new Harper Lee book becomes very interesting.
Publishers publish because they are businesses. They need to make money. They may be non-profit or for-profit, but non-profit doesn’t mean no revenue. It means the profit recognized from sales gets rolled back in to the operations and that shareholders don’t profit. Let’s look at HarperCollins. This is a HUGE publishing house with hundreds of publishing professionals at their disposal. They have an accomplished and notable sales force. They have international distribution and rights deals. They can move a lot of books because they have a lot of money to put behind a title.
HarperCollins doesn’t want to publish Go Set a Watchman for the good of the people. They probably don’t want to publish this book to benefit the author. They want to publish this book because they know it will turn a profit. They’re planning an initial print run of TWO MILLION COPIES. To put this into perspective, an indie or small press publisher might print 5,000 copies if they think they have a particularly strong title.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with publishing being commercial, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with huge publishing houses producing enormous print runs. I’m not anti-business (especially if it means artists and the creative economy benefit).
But if what Madeline Davies says in the Jezebel article is true, and I don’t see anything in that article to indicate she has her own ulterior motive in questioning this publishing choice, then a bigger question is at play.
Let’s just say that Harper Lee has a really good reason why she hasn’t published this title before now. Maybe she didn’t feel it was as strong as To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe she felt that To Kill a Mockingbird was an important enough book that she didn’t want to put another one out there. Maybe that one book was enough. Maybe she only had one story in her, and that was the one (and what a hell of a good story it is). Maybe she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird because what it talked about – racism, rape, and the American justice system – needed exposition in modern literature. Whatever her reasons, she opted to stop publishing novels (but she didn’t stop writing essays and articles and letters). She chose, for more than fifty years, not to publish another novel.
Do you think she’s just mean? She just doesn’t want you to find out what happened to Scout and Jem and Atticus? She thinks you can’t HANDLE it? She doesn’t want any more money. That’s it. She has sold enough books with her first novel that she’s said ‘no, you know what? I don’t need any more money’. [Note: Harper Lee probably didn’t get incredibly rich from sales from her novel.]
Harper Lee has received numerous accolades as a result of this book – not just a Pulitzer prize, but a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a National Medal of Arts. And she has fiercely and successfully defended her own copyright and intellectual property.
And, let’s play devil’s advocate too – let’s say she has decided, in her later years, that really, that second novel really SHOULD be published. That the people of the world really do need to find out what happens to Scout and Atticus. That maybe what happened to those characters after that trial in Alabama is important too.
I’m not convinced. And here’s why this is important: As artists, our intellectual property, our artworks, are commodities. They are our products. We have control over whether or not our works *become* products. If we don’t feel a work is good enough, or ready, or says what we want it to say, we don’t send it out. There are numerous reasons why, and those reasons, each of them is legitimate because our works are the product of our labour.
If writing a book is like building a house, then publishing a book is like selling the house. If the wiring isn’t up to code; if the roof leaks and the grade is off and the foundation cracks, that house isn’t going to sell. If I’m the builder, I want to make sure I build a good, solid house. A beautiful house. A house that will hold young lovers, and tiny babies, and rammy kids, and old farts. And then more young lovers. I don’t really know what this simile has to do with anything. But I kind of liked it.
Anyway. I think I won’t buy the new Harper Lee book when it comes out. I figure that the important story she told in To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t about Scout, or Jem, or Atticus, or Boo Radley. I think I don’t want to know what happens to those folks. I’m happy with Scout staying 9 years old forever. I’m happy remembering Atticus clean off his glasses. I don’t much think about what those folks might have gone on to do, because their zenith was in that court room, and in the jail cell, and back at Atticus’ house. It was never about the characters, in other words. It was about the truth.