Our obsession with Harper Lee

It is slightly surreal to see people rush to pay tribute to Harper Lee while the very structures that made it possible for Mockingbird to be published are disappearing.

Beulah Maud Devaney
22 April 2016

The death of award-winning novelist Nelle Harper Lee in February inspired a deluge of obituaries, essays, musings and meditations. Fans flooded social media with tributes, publishers announced new editions of her work and Lee was glowingly compared to everyone from Maya Angelou to Justin Bieber. Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced multiple generations and the outpouring of grief is understandable. It is, however, slightly surreal to see people rush to pay tribute to Lee while the very structures that made it possible for Mockingbird to be published are disappearing.


The last decade has seen Western publishing industries become increasingly conservative. Falling book sales, the decline of independent bookstores, Amazon’s domination of the book market and ebook piracy have all contributed to making publishers more risk averse. This new conservatism has impacted on two areas that are vital for emerging writers and without which Lee would probably never have been published: financial and editorial support.

Lack of financial support for writers is demonstrated by the widening pay gap between authors: a 2013 study found that the bottom 50% of authors make less than £11,000 per year while the top 10% make £60,000 or more. These figures reflect the way that bestselling novelists are prioritized in an industry that is fixated on the bottom line. The argument has long been made that publishing high-profile bestsellers will ultimately benefit less commercially successful writers. More revenue for the publishing house means that editors can afford to take a risk on untried novelists, but industry professionals like Bethany, a commissioning editor at a Hachette imprint, witness the real life application of this tempting theory:

“It is, of course, a good thing when a book does well” says Bethany. “[However] it’s not as if that money turns up on my P&L [Profit & Loss] spreadsheet the next day, earmarked for developing new authors. I still have to justify every novel I invest in and if anything there’s an increase in pressure because if one book makes a lot of money then why can’t all the books on my list?” The need to “justify” spending time developing a book doesn’t just fall on editorial staff. Marion works in the marketing department of a large UK publisher: “I can’t afford to spend time on books that aren’t going to make a splash, it’s not worth it... New authors are better off relying on their own networks, rather than expecting support from publishers.”

Exposure is vital for even the most talented novelist and the recent publication of 2015 VIDA Count provides hard numbers to back up the unease many insider professionals feel about publishing’s conservative outlook. The Count tracks how often women are reviewed in the literary press and found that, after years of lobbying, women writers are still having to fight for press attention.

Bethany: “I’m not surprised that women are still struggling to get reviewed... I’m upset by it and aware that I am part of the problem. I want the books I work on to get as much attention as possible, I flag up the books that have the most commercial appeal to my marketing colleagues and hope that they get time for the others. By doing this I know that (in a small way) I’m influencing what gets press attention and what books people buy but I don’t know what other options I have.”

Just as most writers earn significantly less than the minimum wage, most authors don’t debut with a multi-million, bestselling blockbuster. Lee was an exception to both these rules but this was because she benefitted from extensive editorial, as well as financial, support. Lee’s editorial support came from Tay Hohoff, a literary editor with the American publishing firm J. B. Lippincott & Co. Hohoff has been credited as “the invisible hand behind To Kill a Mockingbird” and her collaboration with Lee was extensive.

As the VIDA Count, academic syllabuses and most bookshop shelves demonstrate: the publishing default is white, male, middle-class and straight. Authors who don’t fit these boxes are less likely to be reviewed and more likely to suffer imposter syndrome, the belief that what they write does not have merit. This is where good editorial support becomes invaluable. Helendebuted her first poetry collection this year and benefitted from the same publishing relationship Lee enjoyed in the creation of Mockingbird:

“My editor spent years emailing drafts back and forth with me. She encouraged me, refused to let me give up. Without her I wouldn’t have had the confidence or space to be published. I speak to poets who did not have that encouragement and I see how they struggle to tell themselves that yes! I have this right! Without good editors many BAME and female writers would give up, I have no doubt.”

Risk-averse publishing isn’t just about who gets published, it’s also about what gets published. Most 21st century publishing success stories are not stand alone titles, they are part of a series. Game of Thrones, 50 Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Millennium Series, Harry Potter, Dirk Pitt, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: spanning multiple genres and audiences, the books that sell well have multiple volumes, matching Hollywood blockbusters and seemingly limitless merchandise. The publishing industry’s fixation on reliable money- makers was demonstrated by the marketing around Go Set a Watchman (Lee’s widely publicized follow-up to Mockingbird).

Billed by publishers as a sequel, Watchman was presented alongside Mockingbird, with matching covers and promises of further insights into beloved characters Scout and Atticus Finch. This marketing strategy is still in effect today, despite numerous criticisms and the revelation that Watchman was a first draft of Mockingbird, not a sequel or extension as publishers HarperCollins insisted.

The decision to rewrite the publishing history of Mockingbird is a clear example of publishers dedicated to cash cows, whether that’s an author or a franchise. Even if Lee did wholeheartedly consent to the publication of Watchman (something that’s still up for debate) it’s noticeable that the only people to really benefit from this move are her publishers. For the reclusive Lee it meant increased scrutiny, for her readers it presents confusion over the legitimacy of what they’re reading: even for those who loved it, there’s no way that Watchman lives up to the hype of a genuine, thoughtfully plotted sequel. And for Lee’s fellow authors Watchman represents a black hole within the publishing industry.

“I can understand why everyone was excited about Watchman” says Bethany. “[But] as an editor my heart sank. I have to fight to give my writers the time and attention their books need. Every book that was published at the same time [as Watchman] was struggling for readers, regardless of how good it was. With all the good will in the world: how much press attention was a story from an unknown writer going to get when everyone was talking about a Mockingbird sequel?”

While financial and editorial support for writers like Lee is disappearing there is still hope for underrepresented writers. Recent high-profile investigations into the homogeneous nature of the publishing industry have presented practical solutions and publishers are signing up to make 2018 the year of publishing women. As awareness of the issues facing novelists increase there is a chance that the next generations Lee will find the support and guidance they need. For now, however, glowing tributes to Lee’s genius continue to ring hollow while the support she relied upon as a debut writer is eroded.

(Names of interviewees have been changed in this article)


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