Marketing the Emperor’s New Clothes

by Steve Mitchell

| @neuralarts

The facts were not disputed, they were simply mutually ignored by the publishing industry that wanted a hit and the press who wanted an event. It was well known that there were two previous versions of the novel.

Writing is an often tedious business, filled with early versions, late versions, bad versions, better versions. Over the years it may take to shepherd a novel to its final form, all kinds of changes can take place. Characters become other characters, cities become different cities, people change sex, hair color, and sexual orientation sometimes from one day of writing to the next.

A writer’s files are littered with false starts and bad ideas.

It’s a frustrating part of the process, really, and nothing we’d want anyone to ever see. For every novel published, there are two in a drawer somewhere. The authors love these novels with equal parts nostalgia and embarrassment, but we know they are bad. Usually very bad. Drafts aren’t used because they aren’t good; somehow we could never make them work and we know it.

The original draft, rejected by publishers, was titled Go Set a Watchman, and the next draft, Atticus, was accepted but significantly reworked by Lee and her editor over two years to eventually become To Kill A Mockingbird.

But that’s not the way it looked at the beginning or, at least, that’s not the story everyone agreed to tell. Instead, the provenance of the novel was ‘shrouded in mystery’ as if Lee had written it in secret, telling no one, as if she’d been clutching it tightly to her chest waiting diligently for just the right moment to gift it to the world. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, who assumed control of her estate when Lee’s sister died, was given a media platform to pimp her version of discovery. But there was no mystery.

Watchman was sold to the public as a glorious sequel, not the first draft that it was. It was sold as a literary event, not an academic curiosity. And, by all accounts, it was sold without the consent of its author by someone who stands to profit from the estate.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone involved in this process believed the book was some kind of great literary event. Like the star-studded bomb not screened for critics before its release, no advance copies were available until a day or two before it went on sale. Two weeks after its release, sales plummeted. Word was out.

Of course, marketing and hype are always a part of the entertainment industry and no one is expecting artistic integrity from a giant media corporation. Still, it could be argued that some things are not actually books at all. They are pretty balloons filled with nothing but air. There is no real product, only the advertising. I imagine advertisers are immensely proud when they can sell nothing at all””lots of back slapping in self congratulation, champagne corks popping””but the consumer eventually picks up on the grift.

Even avid fans of Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight turned away quickly from Grey, a sequel from the sexy-stalker’s point of view written exclusively as emails, and Life and Death, a retelling of the first book of the Twilight series about sparkly-sexystalker- vampires in which the gender pronouns are reversed but not much else is changed.

At least in these situations, the authors were actively destroying their ‘legacy’ themselves, producing what is essentially fan fiction for their own books in a shameless cash grab. They hoped marketing alone might make them hits, but marketing alone rarely holds up for long. Somewhere in a number of large, dark warehouses, there are copies of Grey and Life and Death stacked to the ceiling waiting to be pulped.

These days, social media gets the word out fast. If a movie or a book is a bomb, it doesn’t take long to know it. Go Set A Watchman took a bit longer to die because it had the muscle of The New York Times and the publishing world behind it. Big box and chain stores had pre-ordered thousands upon thousand of copies and invested in a relentless media campaign. Marketing and hype couldn’t save them.

Harper Lee was very clear about what she wanted her legacy to be. As long as her sister was alive and attorney for the estate, that legacy was protected. It didn’t take long after the sister died for Tonja Carter to start rifling through desk drawers in search of things to sell. If you have a favorite living author, hope for their sake they have a chance to burn their private papers before they die.

Private papers can serve as a valuable academic resource when historians and journalists want to flesh out the way an author thought and worked. They can provide a glimpse into that completely idiosyncratic process writing is for each author , but to publish an author’s draft without their permission is a bit like glueing together the scraps swept up from a designer’s floor and calling it their spring line.

You’ll see Go Set a Watchman on the year-end bestseller lists. Some of those copies were sold to actual humans. Many, if not most, were sold to wholesale distributors and big box stores whose storage units are still packed with those books and will be for a long time. !