Peter Rabbit has had to pack up his blue blazer and move warren—media rights company Chorion, which owns a range of heritage properties and literary estates, including everyone's favourite bunny, has been forced to sell off its assets after Waheed Alli, the company's former chairman and Labour peer, failed to find a new financial backer.
A spokesperson has confirmed that Peter Rabbit and The Octonauts have been bought for an undisclosed sum by Silvergate Media, a new company backed by Alli. But Chorion's other assets—which include Paddington Bear, Mr Men, Eric Carle, Noddy, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler—are now all up for grabs.
With so many blue-chip literary and heritage properties now facing a new chapter, it is an interesting time for all involved. David Brawn, estates publisher at HarperCollins, which publishes Agatha Christie, explains that, despite the current period of uncertainty for the Chorion estate owners, the publishing schedule itself remains "business as usual" because "the relationship [with the estate] often goes right back to the beginning, so the contracts are pretty locked in".
Brawn looks after a variety of other estates, including C S Lewis, Alistair MacLean and Ngaio Marsh. He says: "Estates are all run differently and the motivations of the people that run them change. Some are in it for the money, and why not? But a lot of estates really don't generate a lot of money; they're fighting hard to keep the books in print and as current as possible. I'm fortunate that I have some big ones where money is always there, and they can make money almost in spite of what I do."
Ups and downs
Having worked with some of his estates for 17 years, Brawn has a clear understanding of how complicated the relationship between estate and publisher can be, with both sides having different responsibilities while working towards the same goal: continued sales of books. He says: "There is the same creative conflict that exists between a publisher and an author and between a publisher and an author's agent. But the real frustration is that you can't pick up the phone to the person who wrote the book, [instead] you're forced to interpret what was meant.
"With all estates there is a sense that you have to honour the work and the memory of the person. Colleagues say to me: 'We really want to do this or that, can't you sort it out?' and if you say no, they say: 'Oh, he's gone native, he doesn't know whose side he is on anymore.' But there is a risk, there is a huge risk that you're going to balls it up, so you try and present ideas in a way that estates can feel comfortable with. You say: 'trust me', and of course, some don't believe a word of it."
Although HarperCollins has only been J R R Tolkien's publisher for two decades, it has much longer ties to the author. In 1990 HC bought Unwin Hyman, a merged company comprised of Bell & Hyman and Allen & Unwin, Tolkien's original publisher. The Tolkien estates' lawyer Cathleen Blackburn says that it is a co-operative relationship and that, as with all co-operative relationships, "we have our ups and downs. We have to work together. The publisher has to keep the estate commercial and the estate has to keep the publisher sensible when it comes to the profile and ethos of their plans, because a lot of people over the years want to do some fairly crazy things. One party is reigning in the other and one party is encouraging the estate to be open to ideas and what other people are doing to sell books."
She adds: "People that are close to the publishing can always see we're on the same side, but sometimes you get new marketing people coming along and asking why you aren't you doing this or that. We have to explain to them that over the years we've learnt that some things really aren't a good idea."
Scope for revitalisation
The Society of Authors looks after the estates of around 50 writers and a dozen playwrights, including E M Forster, Philip Larkin and Virginia Woolf. Head of literary estates Jeremy Crow explains that for him the "aim is to administer the estates in the way that the owner would do if they had the time and experience to do so themselves".
He adds: "Owners' priorities might differ—with some trusts, if the sale of the copyright is going to go to charitable beneficiaries then you have a duty to maximise income as much as possible. But another copyright owner might be more concerned, in a very particular way, about the way the work is published, in line with specific wishes of the author. They might decline to make an unpublished manuscript available, whereas in a different situation if someone was trying to maximise earnings, the publication of an unpublished manuscript could be a very valuable thing to do. The key is to look at each of the estates on an individual basis." So, with the complex balance of two different interested parties and estates themselves differing in motivations, re-imagining and revitalising a property, be it through films, sequels or updated versions, can be problematic and protracted work.
For Blackburn, however, it is worth it: "There is quite a good market out there with reviving old properties. We've seen that with comic books, and how the old comic book characters are coming back to the movies. There is quite a lot of scope for the revitalisation of old assets and backlist properties in the right hands. Estates have to work to keep their properties fresh, and that requires active management. There are some estates that go very sleepy, but in the right hands, with people who have a lot of vision, you can do quite a lot."
Pooh 2: the appeal of the sequel
Sequels and prequels (just think of the raft of new Young Adult titles recently published or in the pipeline, from young Bond to young Sherlock Holmes) can mean big bucks for estates, as readers old and new flock to fresh stories of well-known characters.
Over 80 years since Winnie-the-Pooh first played with his poohsticks, author David Benedictus took fans back to the Hundred Acre Wood with his sequel, based on the original books. Return to the Hundred Acre Wood: Inspired by A A Milne and E H Shepard, published by Egmont in 2009, was a book several years in the making with Pooh Properties, which manages the A A Milne and E H Shepard estates.
For Michael Brown, chairman of Pooh Properties, the new edition to the Winnie-the- Pooh canon was well worth the wait: "I’m very happy with the book. There will always be a few purists who will say any new sequel is a disgrace, but there were far less than we expected. We worked hard with David Benedictus, and he with us, to make sure that the book was up to par and not letting the side down. We wanted it to be as if Milne had written it himself, so we did a lot of preparatory work to repel the purist invaders."
Despite the threat of disdain from purists, Brown was confident that the sequel would in no way damage the Winnie-the-Pooh brand: "My view is that our role is to preserve and protect what we’ve got, and I think even if the sequel was trashed, you still can’t actually harm the original. Some [estates] have the feeling that you can damage what you have already, but I don’t see how sequels and prequels can, because what you have already is wonderful and will continue to be there. We’re not stopping the original book, on the contrary we hoped the new one would improve sales—not that anyone wants to be seen getting too greedy or materialistic, obviously we don’t want that; there is a line to be drawn."
Benedictus had first written to Pooh Properties about the possibility of publishing new Winnie-the-Pooh stories eight years before Return’s publication. The process of working with the estate to write the sequel was a complicated one: "It was very much done with the hands-on involvement of the trustees, and they had fairly clear ideas about what they would and wouldn’t like. I was very much between a rock and a hard place, if the rock was the trustees and the hard place was the publishers. I was just trying to tread the tightrope."
So with all that delicate footwork needed, was he pleased with the results? "In some ways I’m pleased and in other ways it is frustrating. It is nice to know it’s being published all around the world and I thought it would be great to get children away from the cartoon movies and back to the original stories. I always thought Disney did a lot to popularise the stories, but I didn’t much like the idea of Winnie-the-Pooh in a little red waistcoat . . . but it hasn’t made me very rich, which I kind of hoped it would."
He adds: "Normally if you write a book you have a deal with the publisher, but of course when trustees are involved it is a lot more complicated. I didn’t have an agent, because the trust already had an agent, so one would have been handing over 30% of the income. It can be very complex; you really are just one of the players in a complicated game."
Estates and digital: new devices, new readers
Last week Bloomsbury launched its new digital imprint Bloomsbury Reader, bringing a whole range of literary estates, alongside contemporary authors, a new digital readership.
Making a variety of titles that had previously been out of print available in e-book form (and print on demand), the Bloomsbury Reader list includes a selection of authors and estates represented by The Rights House and other literary agencies. Authors whose works are being revived digitally include Charles Dickens' great-granddaughter Monica Dickens, politicians Alan Clark and Ted Heath, poet Edith Sitwell and her younger brother Sacheverell, H R F Keating and V S Pritchett.
Stephanie Duncan, digital media director at Bloomsbury, says she is “delighted to be reconnecting this extraordinary selection of authors and books with their original fans, and bringing them into the lives of a new generation of readers.”
For the estates themselves Bloomsbury Reader has provided a welcome opportunity.
William Sitwell, great-nephew and owner of Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell's Estate says: “It's fantastic that people now have far better access to some of these better known, and lesser known, works. Especially for people who might not go out there and buy the books (in print), people who are far more tuned into reading books online through Google Books or downloading them onto their Kindle. The faster and the more efficiently you can be at delivering these works the better.
“I think that poets need people to read their work, bottom line. Edith was never in it for the money, so I think the greater access and the more people I can get to read her work the better. This is another great step forward in getting people interested in the Sitwells and to get people reading.”
With the main aim of the majority of literary estates being to stay true to the memory of the author and their work, when it comes to the difficult questions of abridgement, electronic rights, illustrated books or sequels, there is often an initial sense that declining new avenues is the best way of preventing any disservice; it took HarperCollins seven years of negotiations with the Tolkien estate before it was allowed to release e-books, for example.
But, for Mary Danby, niece and literary executor of the Monica Dickens estate, making Dickens' work available digitally is a “wonderful” idea: “Soon after Monica died I was with Ruth Rendell and I said: 'I wonder what is going to happen now?' and she said: 'Just wait a bit, and you'll see.' And suddenly now, after 19 years, it is all waking up like mad. As a great e-book reader myself I think it is a great opportunity, particularly in a case like this, where you're not going to get people to print a lot of copies of an author who has been dead for a while. It used to be the case that everybody knew who Monica was, but younger people now haven't heard of her, so one does need to start again.”
Books vs Hollyowd: the risks and gains of the big screen
J R R Tolkien sold the film rights to The Lord of the Rings to United Artists in 1969 and Cathleen Blackburn, lawyer for the Tolkien Estate, explains that it "came as a surprise when it looked as though someone [director Peter Jackson in the late 90s] was taking an interest. The rights had been out there for 30 years and so with the films it was a very slow burn. When rights were sold—especially in the 1960s—they were sold with no editorial control, so we were bystanders with the films and let them get on with it, knowing that they could do whatever they liked; it was in their name and it wasn't in ours."
She adds: "Primarily the Tolkien estate aim is to keep Tolkien's books at the forefront of what people understand of Tolkien. The challenge since the films were released has been to make sure the books themselves are as prominent, if not more, than the films. That's tough, because with publishing versus Hollywood, well it is difficult, as they're not of equal strength."
Big screen adaptations can be a double-edged sword for estates and publishers—get it right and sales can increase, but get it wrong and a whole generation of new potential readers can be dissuaded. David Brawn, at Tolkein's publisher HarperCollins, explains that he felt "nervous" when Jackson first approached the publisher about the films.
"He wanted to contact Alan Lee and John Howe, who were our cover artists, as he liked their work and thought they could be involved with the films. We looked him up and discovered he had directed some really shaky looking horror films previously, and when it became clear the Lord of the Rings films were going to happen we were nervous. We could remember a cartoon version from the late 1970s, which really hadn't done the books any favours, and with that in mind—plus some of the pretty awful film adaptations that there had been—we thought: 'this could be really bad'."
He adds: "The truth is if something as big as a Hollywood-sponsored film turns out to be really awful, it will put people off the book—like with Louis de Bernières' Captain Corelli's Mandolin. That book was a bestseller week after week but the film was disappointing, and afterwards that book was no longer the perennial bestseller it once was. So as a sponsor of someone's work, you do worry that if a wrong thing is done, you can do untold damage."
Brawn explains that his job is as much about protection as it is about exploitation, so while he keeps chipping away at estates with new ideas he understands their hesitation when it comes to projects like big-screen adaptations, but that ultimately, "you never take no for an answer. With a lot of estates, such as the C S Lewis estate, people had wanted [a film] for a long time, and in that instance I think the family had seen what benefit had been derived from the Lord of the Rings films. Not everybody liked them, but it certainly led to the selling of a huge number of books [according to Nielsen BookScan's TCM all the various print editions of the Lord of the Rings series sold close to 2.6 million copies in the period between the first film and last film coming out]. They were good enough to get people to read the books and I think the C S Lewis family then thought: 'we could have a slice of this'. So things do change."