This week marks the completion of the best part of a year's work for David Brawn, HarperCollins' publishing director for estates. Falling smack in the middle of Agatha Christie Week, HarperCollins announced on Wednesday (15th) that it had secured worldwide rights to Christie's entire back catalogue across print, digital and audio.
Since Roger Ackroyd was murdered in one of Christie's best-known novels, in 1926, Collins has been the crime legend's publisher in the UK and the Commonwealth. However, under the 1911 Copyright Act, rights reverted 25 years after the author's death if the book was contracted before 1957, rather than the now standard 70 years.
In 2001, a quarter of a century after Christie's death, Brawn negotiated a 10-year profit share deal with Chorion, the company that handles Christie's estate. Ten years on, HC grew Christie's worldwide volume sales by 50% (two thirds of her sales are outside the UK) while US sales, which were handled by Penguin and St Martin's Press, fell over the same period.
"That's not to say they were doing anything wrong or we had a magic formula but that was quite compelling for Chorion as we could say to them what we could do internationally," Brawn says. "There's a bit of a rescue job to be done. They are all crazy for the likes of Sherlock Holmes and all that cosy crime but Agatha Christie does not have the same level of respect in the States that she does here."
The deal, for which HarperCollins paid a seven-figure sum, ties the Christie rights to HC until 2020, the centenary of her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Brawn says among the immediate plans are to oversee a repackaging of Christie's backlist for the US market in spring 2011. Having repackaged the author for UK bookshops two years ago, an immediate refresh on these shores is unlikely.
No new Marple and Poirot
Also not on the cards is a James Bond Devil May Care-style approach, with contemporary authors getting to play with Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. "If you do it and get it wrong, you could do untold damage to the legacy of Agatha Christie and her sales," Brawn says.
"Many will argue she has been successful long enough and to a scale that you can't possibly damage her reputation. But there are people who are circumspect about doing that." He jokes that the worst-case scenario is if the book were better than a Christie. "It would be quite a hard trick but how awful would it be?"
As well as Christie, Brawn mainly deals with the estate of J R R Tolkien (his other authors include Alistair MacLean, Ngaio Marsh and C S Lewis). He says dealing with the estates requires patience and tenacity: it took seven years of discussions with the Tolkien estate before it agreed for HC to release e-books. His first meeting with the Tolkien estate in 1995 involved him having seven publishing ideas in a row shot down. It was, he says, "the most humiliating morning".
"You sometimes sit and think 'have I gone native? Am I asking sufficiently challenging questions?'" he says. "You need to make sure you are not assuming too much. I'm fairly confident I've got the right perspective. You keeping chipping away."
Having joined Thorsons straight from college, it was in 1995 when David Young, then m.d. of the trade division, asked Brawn to join as project director, publishing brand authors such as Christie and Tolkien. I ask him why he has stayed in the job so long, as surely it lacks the acquisitionary thrill of a more conventional publisher.
"You feel quite a responsibility to the authors," he replies. "You don't become friends with the estate but you develop, I hope, a respect, and a respect for the material. I find that quite compelling. Why would I trade that for doing something else?
"I do believe I add value and HarperCollins adds value. If you just left it as it is to carry on, it would start to slide quite quickly. I still have ideas for quite a long time because as publishing evolves, new ideas and new opportunities come along. So there is a lot to do and I don't think we have done it all yet, which is nice."