For decades, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been a staple of high school English classes, and has inspired young people across the country. Unfortunately, following her death in February, the Harper Lee's estate will no longer allow publication of the mass-market paperback edition of To Kill A Mockingbird — aka, the inexpensive version that's so popular with schools. And it's a concerning decision for a number of reasons.
According to The New Republic, which received emails sent by publisher Hachette to booksellers in multiple states, Harper Lee's estate has decided that Hachette will no longer be allowed to produce the mass-market paperback version of To Kill A Mockingbird, and that no other publishing house will be allowed to print a mass-market paperback edition. Hachette will be selling off its stock of the book at a discount to booksellers, and after that, there will be no more mass-market copies.
The move has been controversial to say the least, with much speculation that it is motivated not by an effort to protect and preserve Lee's legacy, but by money. Mass-market paperbacks are typically cheaper than their trade paperback cousins — in the case of To Kill A Mockingbird the mass-market edition sells for around $8.99, while the trade paperback edition goes for $14.99. Additionally, although publisher HarperCollins holds the copyright to the novel, it licensed Hachette the rights to the mass-market paperback, meaning that HarperCollins and Lee's estate will split the proceeds from the royalties, rather than Lee collecting the full royalties as she does from HarperCollins-produced copies.
In other words, the mass-market paperback isn't as lucrative.
And it's hard not to think, therefore, that this decision isn't primarily about money. The move comes after a great deal of concern over the past year that Lee's lawyer Tonja Carter, who is now the executor of her estate, was allegedly taking advantage of the ailing author and that Lee, who was 89 and had never recovered fully from a stroke in 2007, was not in a position to understand or agree to the decision to publish Go Set A Watchman — which was most likely an early draft of Mockingbird not a separate manuscript as Carter portrayed it.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, many view this new decision as another sign that Carter is putting money above all else.
Whether or not the decision to pull the mass-market paperback was financially motivated it is a sad announcement. The much more affordable copy made it easy for schools to use the novel as part of the curriculum. Now that the cheapest version available will cost more than 50 percent more per copy, it's likely that many schools won't reorder more once their current copies get worn out, and will instead find something more affordable to teach.
After being a staple in American high schools for decades, To Kill A Mockingbird might find itself mostly left out of the classroom within the next 10 years, especially in lower-income school districts. Whatever motivated this decision, it's hard to see it as being good for Lee's long-term legacy.
Perhaps even more depressing, however, is the fact that there's nothing precisely that can replace it. To Kill A Mockingbird is not just a beautifully written novel and a 20th century classic, it's also one of the relatively few books in the American literary canon that deals directly with segregation, Jim Crow, and racial injustice and is probably the only such book that is appropriate to high school students. The book isn't perfect by any means — Atticus Finch is the embodiment of the white savior trope, after all — but the fact that any book dealing with these issues has been so widely taught in American schools is unquestionably a good thing.
So what will replace it? There are other books that deal with segregation and the Jim Crow era, though many are not part of the established literary canon and therefore far less likely to be chosen for a high school English class. Some canon works do deal with this time period, of course, including many that are even more impactful than Mockingbird — Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison springs immediately to mind — but most are typically the province of college courses, rather than high school classrooms.
In other words, children across the country may be losing out not just on an American classic, but on the chance to engage with race, racism, and the Jim Crow era through literature. And we as a country will be missing out on a population that has not gained greater perspective, of the kind only fiction can provide, to this painful period of our history.
Whatever motivated this decision, it's hard not to view it as a tragedy.