Recap: YPG June BBL: Books from Beyond
Moderated by Hannah Campbell, Assistant Editor at Penguin Random House, four panelists from across the industry sat down to discuss how the editorial process changes when an author has passed away. Panelists included Cathy Goldsmith, President and Publisher of Random House’s Beginner Book line and Dr. Seuss publishing program; Ken Wright, Vice President and Publisher of Viking Children’s Books; Peter Blackstock, Senior Editor at Grove Atlantic; and Dan Frank, Vice President and Editorial Director of Pantheon.
Dan Frank dealt recently with the very public death of an author. Doctors told neurologist and physician Oliver Sacks that he had less than a year to live, and one task on his bucket list was to approach his editor and figure out how his legacy would continue after he passed away.
For Dan, putting together Sacks’s book of essays became a part of the grieving process, a chance to remember and talk about the man they had all known and worked with.
“[We] saw this as an opportunity to remember him [and] create something that was in memory of this man,” Dan said. But the process was not without challenges. In seeking to honestly and faithfully represent the author after his death, the creative team had to decide if they would follow his literal words and preserve original phrasing in the draft, or keep with his spirit of revision.
Cathy Goldsmith had a similar experience art directing Ted Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) prior to the author/illustrator’s death. Now, 25 years after his death, Goldsmith still works on his publishing program, keeping his characters and stories alive.
Cathy agreed with Dan, noting that as editors of deceased authors, “We are really partners in keeping [their] legacy alive.”
She commented—and the other panelists agreed—that it felt as if the author had created something and it was her job as the editor to not screw it up.
“If Ted were still alive,” she added, “he would have still been writing books… but he’s not here, so the rest of us have to do the best we can, the way Ted would have done it.”
For Cathy, it’s a question of refreshing and reinvigorating the brand—something that is not always allowed. While some authors’ estates, such as Dr. Seuss’s, allow for spinoffs and derivative versions, others lock editors into publishing only their original versions. Ken Wright has dealt with such properties, and says it becomes a challenge of packaging and adjusting backlist for current readers. Other editors spoke of looking for creative ways to bring past titles into the present using pop culture and other moments.
In many ways, though, the author’s legacy and estate encourage and allow for the same kinds of conversations that would typically occur with living authors.
“It’s a give and take… like a deal with an author,” Ken said.
In Peter Blackstock’s experience, the process also allows for additional expansion—in his titles, he often is able to make the details of research available in the back of the book as a resource for fans, experts, and scholars. Other estates include relatives of the author who are also creators in their own right, as is the case for John Bemelmans Marciano, grandson of the creator and artist of Madeline.
Panelists found other similarities between working with estates and working with living authors. A posthumous author is similar to any living author who prefers not to participate in publicity, has a large team with varied opinions, and has a long legacy deserving of respect. For Peter, building a legacy is the goal, creating what Cathy called “new classics.”
But, as Cathy knows, “not all estates speak with one voice” and unlike dealing with a single author, estates require balancing multiple opinions in search of a consensus.
At times, the publishing house itself becomes yet another voice in the chorus—so much so that Cathy believes Random House’s decision to purchase Vanguard in 1988 was motivated by the fact that Geisel wanted all his books under one house.
For Peter, though, the opportunity to sell a single author’s books across multiple houses allows for creating a moment by working together.
Of course, there are struggles. On the lighter side, Cathy found it horrifying that they had to update metadata to include misspellings of Seuss, for purposes of search optimization.
In the end, the editors never lose sight that these authors’ deaths are serious losses to their fans, the literary community, and their friends and families.
And perhaps even heavier is the knowledge that the state of their memory rests in part with these editors.
As questions arise during publication, rebranding, and creating new moments for established legacies, the panelists agreed that it was their responsibility to curate a legacy that would be true to the person the author was during life, the people who remain and control their estates, the agents who act as intermediaries, and the work the authors originally created.
It sounds like an exhausting balancing act, but also something these editors have come to enjoy.
Faced with the idea of working with Sacks’s estate in the future, Dan called it “a conversation and a process that I’m looking forward to immensely.”
This article was contributed by YPG member Sara Schonfeld. For more information, visit our contributing writers page.