The “Cold Metal” Version of To Kill A Mockingbird: Why Did It Take So Long?

HarperCollins announced that Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird will finally be available as an e-book by July 8, 2014. It’s about time.

Lee’s only novel, published in 1960, is one of my favorite books. When I revisited it last summer, I had no choice but to read a traditional paper copy, which I refused to defile with underlining and scribbles in the margins. So, I used Post-it notes. A lot of them.*

There are many people who love this novel as much as I do. Just a few days ago, a Harris Poll showed that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of America’s favorite books, placing number five in 2014. That’s up two spots from 2008. Perhaps this slight increase in popularity is due to the media attention Lee has received over the last year, when she deviated from her typical reclusive ways to sue her former agent and the Monroe County Heritage Museum in two separate suits.

The complaint against Lee’s former agent, Samuel Pinkus, hints at a reason for the delayed appearance of the e-book version of her novel. It suggests that there’s more to it than her general preference for reading “soft pages” rather than “cold metal.” As I wrote on May 16, 2013 in When Our Literary Heroes Become Victims:

[Lee’s] complaint alleges, among other alleged breaches of fiduciary duty, that Pinkus failed to “work the copyright,” including by “not respond[ing] to offers by HarperCollins to discuss the licensing of e-book rights.” … It’s fascinating to learn that Lee might not have been the one to stand in the way of digital access to her work.

I’m particularly curious about the content of HarperCollins’ e-book licensing offers to Lee/Pinkus. Were they anything like the offer HarperCollins extended to Jean Craighead George for the e-book publication of Julie of the Wolves? As detailed in the Southern District of New York’s opinion in HarperCollins v. Open Road Integrated Media, HarperCollins delayed the publication of the e-book version of Julie of the Wolves by attempting to force George to accept a 25% royalty instead of the 50% royalty required by the very part of 1971 contract that HarperCollins claimed covered e-book publishing (I don’t think the contract covered e-books at all — but the court seems to think it did!). I wouldn’t be surprised if they (and other big publishers) have tried to pull that trick with other authors, like Harper Lee.

Whatever the roadblocks were to publishing To Kill a Mockingbird as an e-book, the reading public is lucky that Lee and HarperCollins were able to overcome them. On my next re-read, I won’t have to use Post-it notes when I want to highlight portions of the text!

*For my posts on To Kill a Mockingbird, see (1) Revisiting the “Soft Pages” of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, (2)Our Morbid Curiosity: Watching “Poor Devils” (Or Maybe Just “Devils”) on Trial, (3) We Were All Children Once (Even Lawyers).


    1. You’re welcome! I can’t wait to re-read it on my e-reader. I miss traditional paper sometimes, but I really need the convenience of digital reading.

  1. She should have bought the rights to her book back and self published. Even 50% is not great. I get 35% for any ebook I publish under $2.99 (my backlist is all 99 cents now), and 70% at $2.99+.

    Currently, the Kindle version of TKAM is listed at a pre-order price of $4.74, for which she’ll get $2.37. She could self-pub at $3.99 (the most popular/profitable price point), sell more copies, get more readers, and make more money ($2.79/copy).

    But, I’ll admit, the disparity is shrinking. In the old days, she’d get 25% (if that), and it’d be listed at $9.99+. Ebook pricing is becoming more reasonable… but that’s mostly due to self-publishing (newcomers like Hugh Howey and old timers like Stephen King) driving down prices.

    1. This is very interesting. I imagine that it would’ve been hard for Lee to buy the publishing rights back from HarperCollins considering that her book still sells (they’d be crazy to let it go). I wonder what her contract said and whether it included e-book publishing rights. I think Lee’s complaint against Pinkus said that HarperCollins didn’t have e-book licensing rights, but Jean Craighead George would’ve said that about her 1971 contract with HarperCollins too.

      $4.74 sounds reasonable to me for the e-book. I’m kind of surprised they aren’t asking more for it.

      1. Good point re buying it back… it is a classic. I taught it to my 11th grade class 20 years ago, and that’s probably where most of the copies go to (students). And yeah, $4.74 is cheap.

        My first job out of college was as a subsidiary rights assistant at a major publisher. Subrights covered everything except the book in its native language — translations, movie rights, film, video games, everything.

        I assume a contract from 1971 would be one of those “everything else” contracts — which is why they could claim ebook rights, though no such technology existed back then.

        The movie for TKAM was made in 1962. Typically, the rights to a character for a movie (like Spider-Man) last 10 years — if you don’t make a movie in 10 years, the rights revert to the original owner .(That’s why they keep remaking Spider-Man.) I wonder if they’ll remake the movie….

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