Reviving Love Signs, Revitalizing Royalties, and Reincarnating a Brand:
The Case of Linda Goodman
Born Mary Alice Kemery, Linda Goodman changed her name when she took a job as a radio host in Pittsburgh and married her second husband, Sam Goodman. She loved astrology and had a knack of making it accessible to people who might otherwise dismiss it as planetary mumbo jumbo. Goodman began writing a beginner’s guide to astrology, Sun Signs, a sign-by-sign review of the characteristics of each astrological sign. Her ability to engage her audience personally through a broadcast medium translated well to print in her use of first person. Her fans usually addressed her, “Dear Linda,…” as if she had written her books for them—even to them.
In 1968, she published Sun Signs with Taplinger, a tiny publisher with a backlist today of some 2,000 titles led by Sun Signs. The book essentially popularized astrology around the world. Linda Goodman had. Before Sun Signs few newspapers and magazines ran astrology columns and relatively few people knew their own place on the zodiac. After Sun Signs, only the rare newspaper or magazine lacked an astrology column. After all, fully participating in the Age of Aquarius required an obsession with your personal zodiac.
Bantam, the largest U.S. paperback publisher at the time, licensed paperback rights to Sun Signs.
By 1977, Goodman’s guide was the #1 nonfiction title in the Bantam catalog and in the catalog of Pan, the largest U.K. paperback publisher. Dozens of foreign publishers launched it successfully in translation, and I continue to get requests from emerging markets for translation rights.
So convinced were Goodman’s readers of the hidden wisdom in the zodiac, that they consulted it before making major life decisions, such as marriage. A natural sequel was Love Signs, in which she would map each sign to every other sign for compatibility. Goodman had contractually committed rights to Taplinger, even though she later contractually consigned rights to Random House. Resulting litigation, Random House vs Goodman, broke up the Random House deal. Then, like Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Goodman began promising percentage interests in Love Signs to other parties for various forms of short-term financial assistance. By the time I met her in 1977, Goodman owed about 25 third parties nearly 200% of the 80% completed new manuscript. A real conundrum.
This rights mess was shackling Goodman commercially. If I could clean it up, then Love Signs would realize its considerable value for a long time. If I could not restore order, I was risking my time. So I took on the assignment. My basic pitch to the percentage participants was straightforward: a percentage of something is better than a percentage of nothing or, when possible, cash is better than a percentage of nothing.
HarperCollins wanted Love Signs but, knowing of Linda’s dire financial and legal predicament, had offered an advance of only $50,000. When presented with a tidy bundle of rights, HarperCollins improved its offer to $500,000. With that sum, we paid off most of the 25 percentage participants.
During the frenzied days before delivering Love Signs to the printer (Harper had implicitly set a deadline to ship the book before Thanksgiving in 1978), another rights puzzle crossed my desk. Goodman had quoted extensively from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Peter Pan was a short work; more than half of it appeared in bits and pieces throughout Love Signs. Convincing her to remove it was out of the question. Convincing its then publisher, Scribner’s, to license it at an affordable fee for a work of astrology seemed equally out of the question.
But what if Peter Pan had already entered the public domain? I asked our copyright counsel to research the original date of copyright of Peter Pan. Publishers commonly use a later date in their title page listings not only to extend the copyright term but also to make time-sensitive manuscripts seem more current. In the decade before 1910, publishers deposited books for copyright in the United States in the Low Memorial Library at Columbia, rather than in the Library of Congress as today. My lawyer did not find an early edition of the book, but he found the next best evidence: an index card indicating that the publisher had submitted Peter Pan at an earlier date, placing the work in the public domain.
We published Love Signs and waited for Scribner’s to call (it did, almost immediately). Had I contacted the publisher in advance, it might have sued us for an injunction to block publication. When I supplied the opinion of my counsel, Scribner’s quickly agreed to a nominal fee ($2,500) and our promise to add a permission credit in subsequent printings. For about six years, I was among the very few who knew that Peter Pan had entered the public domain.
HarperCollins published Love Signs to great fanfare including the highest price achieved to date for a nonfiction title in the UK (over $350,000; higher than Henry Kissinger’s Memoirs) and the record price for a nonfiction paperback license ($2,250,000).
I auctioned paperback rights at the peak of paperback rights transactions. The Love Signs deal (from Fawcett Publications, then owned by CBS) contributed to CBS’ decision to sell the unit to Ballantine Books, now a division of Random House. Ten years later, the paperback license came up for renewal, and the paperback rights were still worth close to $1,000,000. The paperback rights to Sun Signs set a series of renewal records with advances every ten years of around $500,000.
By the late 1980s, Goodman had spent a multiple of her royalty income and filed for the largest personal bankruptcy in the state of Colorado. Bankruptcy rarely pays its creditors much. The bankruptcy assets of Sun Signs and Love Signs helped to break those rules; she paid creditors—including her literary agents as commission claimants—100 cents on the dollar.
Goodman’s case also highlights another aspect of commercial publishing: fans tend to want more of the same, and she knew it. She often claimed that her fans would buy any Signs book, even Manure Signs. A well read woman, Goodman fancied herself a poet and prized her less marketable book of poetry, Venus Trines at Midnight, over the major commercial titles, and her “channeled” love story in blank verse, Gooberz, over her poetry. Goodman could write with a grace and speed of few other writers. But she felt trapped by her own success.
Thirty-five years later and 15 years after Goodman’s death (or reincarnation, Goodman would argue), I am still reincarnating her body of work, most recently licensing electronic rights to Sun Signs and Love Signs to RosettaBooks for both full length digital editions and a series of 12 ebooks (one per sign). After every solstice, royalties roll in from around the globe and a trust distributes funds to a variety of interested parties. Indeed, her work has ultimately generated more than $750,000 in agency commissions. There is still no stronger astrology brand than Linda Goodman.