When Harper Lee's British publisher broke the news that there would be a new novel from the 88-year-old author, screams were heard around the office. I can just imagine: The screams of the rescued. The same "oh-my-God-we're-not-toast-after-all" hallelujahs heard on the beaches at Dunkirk and at the U.S. embassy before the fall of Saigon.
Book publishing is in a tailspin these days. It could use a rescuer arriving with a surefire hit in her arms. There is no book more clearly destined for success than To Kill a Mockingbird's sequel, unless J.K. Rowling and Stephen King decide to collaborate on a novel about S&M vampires, called 50 Shades of Slay.
The new novel is called Go Set a Watchman (as a middle-aged person, I am thrilled that the adjective "new" has been reclaimed for something that is more than 50 years old.) Only a handful of people have read it – the group does not even include Ms. Lee's U.S. editor – but they know a golden goose when they see one.
An initial print run of two million copies has been ordered by Ms. Lee's American publisher, Harper, a division of HarperCollins. Jonathan Burnham of Harper told The Atlantic that he expects the book to be a "major bestseller," a pronouncement that does not make him Kreskin. Mr. Burnham only would have had to look at Amazon's bestseller list, where Go Set a Watchman is ranked No. 1 – five months before its release. To Kill a Mockingbird continues to sell around 800,000 copies a year. Anyone in publishing would gleefully string up half his midlist authors to be in Mr. Burnham's position.
Ms. Lee, reportedly nearly blind and deaf and living in a nursing home in Alabama, is the Rolls Royce of literary brands – she did one thing very, very well and made millions of people happy. For 55 years she has not published another work of fiction but mysteriously, soon after the death of her literary watchdog sister, her lawyer somehow stumbled across the "long-lost" sequel, attached to an original manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird. The "new" novel's backstory smells fishier than 10-day-old tuna, but who would be so churlish as to question it?
Who is going to begrudge book publishing a success it so desperately needs? Print book sales were down in the U.S. last year (adult fiction by eight per cent) and in Canada (according to figures to be released by Booknet Canada in March, the print book market shrank by 2.5 per cent last year.) The juvenile market, with its crossover superstars like John Green and Suzanne Collins, is the only place where there's any robustness.
People are distracted, their magpie eyes straying to the shinier worlds of television, video games and social media. Publishing, understandably, clings ever closer to the big-name brands that are guaranteed to sell (it is no coincidence that Robert Galbraith's debut novel became a bestseller only when it was revealed that "Mr. Galbraith" was in fact J.K. Rowling.)
Even in death, the golden geese of the literary world are not allowed to rest in peace. Quality is not a prerequisite for publication. This leads to egregious posthumous scrapings such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Hurin, completed by his son and published 34 years after he passed away. (I attended the launch of that novel; there were orcs, and a print run of 500,000.) In 2013, the year of his death, Tom Clancy sold 553,000 copies of his novels, which is probably why he continues to publish from the great beyond – with the help of a still-living co-author, Mark Greaney.
The pressure on successful authors to keep going is tremendous. When I interviewed the late P.D. James in 2009, she told me how she dreaded ending up like Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh, publishing dreck just to keep her publishers and readers happy. "If you're very popular, then readers want a new book desperately. It's very hard for publishers to say no to them."
The quality of her books didn't slip at the end; if anything, her last novels were among her best. Perhaps, in several months' time, we'll say the same thing about Go Set a Watchman. Perhaps it is a lost masterpiece. The people around Ms. Lee certainly would like everyone to think so – and to understand that the author is behind the publication unequivocally.
After various questions were raised about Ms. Lee's role, her publisher released a statement, quoting her as saying she is "alive and kicking and happy as hell" with the new book.
That statement does not quite jibe with this version from Ms. Lee's foreign-rights agent, Andrew Nurnberg, who spoke to the Guardian newspaper. At first, the author "actually didn't think it needed to be published," he said. "She questioned – is this really good? Are you sure? And when we said yes, she said if you think so, do it. She didn't say she didn't want it published. Quite honestly, she was surprised by the discovery and bemused that somebody might be interested in an earlier book. But once she knew it was deemed publishable, she was completely for it."
There's a poignancy to that phrase, "Is this really good?" Every writer will recognize the self-doubt. But it doesn't matter if it's any good, in the end. It will sell and sell, because it is gold-plated.