Sequel to a Bestseller: Harper Lee

IMG_1123This is the first of two postings concerning an interesting, and sometimes problematic situation in publishing: the sequel to a runaway bestseller.

Like most aspiring authors, I hope the promise of my first work will convince a publisher to offer me a three-book contract, something that is fairly common. Doing so shows the writer that her publisher has enough confidence in the sales potential of her initial book to bring out at least two more of them. In some instances this confidence is well founded; not so in others. There are certainly cases wherein a weak first work sees the light of day because the publisher believes the next one will do well commercially.

There probably aren’t any accolades that haven’t been applied to Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Its description of racial tensions in a Depression-era Alabama town, as seen through the eyes of a young white girl nicknamed Scout, captured the attention of readers the world over. Indeed, 30 million copies have been sold of To Kill a Mockingbird; translated into 40 languages, it has remained in print in both hardcover and paperback editions.

The box office earnings of the novel’s film adaptation, released in 1962, were 10 times its production budget. It received three Academy Awards, and, in many viewers’ minds (and hearts), established actor Gregory Peck as the living embodiment of the character Atticus Finch.

For decades after To Kill a Mockingbird’s debut and subsequent success, people wondered whether Harper Lee would write another book about Atticus, Jem and Scout. The fact that Ms. Harper chose to live outside the limelight, rarely giving interviews, only intensified interest in the topic. As she became elderly it appeared her fans would be disappointed.

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Then in the middle of the current decade a tidal wave of speculation swelled: a second manuscript about the Finches had been unearthed! The question was, would Harper Lee permit it to be published? (The tangled legal issues that arose over this book are beyond the scope of this posting.) The announcement that Go Set a Watchman would be published portended a major publishing event. Upon its release in 2015 some 1.1 million hardcover copies were sold; buoyed by this success, the initial print run was upped to 3.3 million books.

People started reading Go Set a Watchman and things came to a screeching halt. The Atticus Finch described in its pages was not the ethical lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird, who took on the doomed defense of a black man accused of defiling a white woman desperate for affection. No, this Atticus was a “typical” white man of the 1930s American South, a closet racist who doubted the ability of African-Americans to raise themselves above the menial mindset of slavery times.

This revelation, and evidence that Go Set a Watchman was actually an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, led upset readers to return copies of the former to bookstores and online retailers, demanding their money back for having been hoodwinked. At this point I don’t know how many copies of Go Set a Watchman remain in circulation but I would venture a guess that its long-term prospects are not good. And a film adaptation? Nope.

What can be learned from the case of anticipating a sequel to a beloved novel that turned out to be a fiasco? The old saying about not counting one’s chickens before they’ve hatched comes to mind. Another ancient saw proclaiming that “everyone has one book in them” is also worthy of consideration.

Have you read both of Harper Lee’s novels? What did you think of them?

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