The Saga of an American Family

Publishers typically license book rights for the term of copyright, specifically the author’s life plus 70 years. The license locks the author in beyond the grave, and the publisher completely controls a successful backlist book without any obligation to re-promote or license it further. Unless there is a legal or a technological disruption.
In America’s bicentennial year, Doubleday & Company published Alex Haley’s Roots, to huge success. The multi-generational journey through the author’s African-then-American family tree was an international hit: dozens of foreign publishers licensed translation rights to Roots; its hardcover, mass market paperback, and book club editions set a high bar for works of non-fiction; and its made-for-television version pioneered a whole new genre of programming, the TV mini-series, which broke Nielsen records for TV viewership.
By 2006, the lone surviving edition was a nondescript U.S. mass market paperback that paid Haley’s family a modest annual royalty—modest, partly because the license split revenues 50/50 between the author and the hardcover publisher (a common practice in the mid-1970s), and partly because the publisher had done virtually nothing in years to promote the paperback, not even on its silver anniversary. Los Angeles-based Marc Toberoff is a leading entertainment lawyer in defending the copyright of dead authors in Hollywood. His clients include the creators of comic book characters (Superman), television series (Lassie), and television miniseries (Roots). Toberoff knew that his clients, usually surviving spouses, children, or other heirs acting in concert, can revert rights by operation of law during certain windows of time after the death of the creator. Toberoff renegotiated the terms of the miniseries for Roots with Warner Brothers, allowing Warner Brothers to re-release Roots for cable and in DVD. As a result of the reversion, the Haleys were free of various license commitments, including the commission to Haley’s original representative, the John Hawkins Agency, and the license to Roots’ original publisher, Doubleday.
Toberoff wanted to reignite book royalties as well. But Doubleday, now a division of Random House, Inc., wanted simply to renew the terms of its longstanding license—same royalty structure—and resume its mass market program. Reinforcing the status quo was not what Toberoff had in mind.
Then again, planting Roots elsewhere presented challenges. First, the mass market edition had been in place for decades. Many publishers would assume that Random House had explored and ruled out other formats such as the trade paperback popular today for major nonfiction and literary fiction titles and had exhausted any remaining marketing and promotional opportunities. What else could a publisher do?

Controversy

Second, shortly after Roots was published, Hal Courlander filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Haley, claiming that Haley had lifted the plot, the main character Kunte Kinte, and whole passages from Courlander’s 1967 novel, The African. Historians began questioning the veracity of Haley’s “nonfiction” narrative. Before verdict, Haley settled for the largest amount of money ever known to change hands in such a case (a rumored $500,000), and the judge blasted Haley as a plagiarist. The Roots mini-series had not aired in nearly three decades. Whatever its path breaking impact on television and popular culture in the late 1970’s, it was now a media artifact. Why would another publisher want to defend the entire credibility of Roots, 30 years after publication?

Challenges and opportunities

Arthur Klebanoff saw these challenges as opportunities. Haley was the celebrated co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a classic book in its own right. He won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation in 1977. He had conducted some of Playboy’s most famous interviews. The Coast Guard, to whom he dedicated 20 years of his life, named a cutter for him. The Alex Haley Museum became a historical landmark in 1986. Haley had transformed the interest of Americans in their family roots and broached key issues of race head on, as few people have. Haley and Courlander were both dead. Why not sell the triumphs and let the ignominy rest in peace?
Klebanoff recommended that Toberoff decline the Random House offer and retain him on behalf of the Roots Partnership to seek a more expansive publisher on better terms.
He began pitching Roots to the big New York houses as if it were new project with an iconic past. After all, no one had bothered to market Roots in over 25 years. The new publisher would have to approach the publication of Roots similarly, with a marketing strategy that not only celebrated its icon status but also leveraged every aspect of the author’s writing career. Here was Klebanoff’s plan:

  • Issue a trade paperback edition with a foreword of substance by a respected member of the African American community. That packaging would position Roots as a serious, important work of cultural significance.
  • Issue an audio book. Audio books had grown to over 10% of the book market, and most publishers automatically included them in the launch of major books, yet Random House had never created one for Roots.
  • Involve Haley’s former periodical publishers in the launch. Haley was a key editor for the Reader’s Digest and a major contributor to Parade Magazine. Reader’s Digest had sponsored much of the research for Roots and the first chapters of Roots had appeared as a first serial (i.e. book excerpt published before the hardcover) in the Digest. Between them, Reader’s Digest and Parade reached over 40 million people. Present them both with the opportunity to celebrate their relationship with Haley.
  • Coordinate the launch with Warner Brothers’ release of its new DVD set, Roots: The 30th Anniversary Edition and Roots: The Next Generations. Studio budgets, even for DVD releases of old mini-series, dwarf publisher promotion budgets. A tie-in with the studio would give the book a fresh look and feel.
  • Engage Alex Haley’s son William Haley as spokesman for the publicity campaign and potential book tour.
Most publishers had no interest in the project, some going as far as to argue that black readers would not pay the premium price for a trade paperback edition Vanguard Press, a Perseus imprint, immediately saw the opportunity and enlisted support of the senior-most executives in the parent company. They were convincing that they would publish the book aggressively. Klebanoff recommended a deal structure where we traded off a traditional advance for a high royalty and contractual marketing commitments, so that they would organize and execute strong campaign.
The plan worked. Vanguard signed up Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, to craft a context-setting introduction to the trade paperback. Wal-Mart agreed to feature Roots in its central city stores. Vanguard auctioned audio rights, and BBC Audio produced an award-winning audio featuring the baritone voice of Avery Brooks. Toberoff introduced Klebanoff to the Warner Brothers team which coordinated well with the Vanguard team. The image of Kunte Kinte in chains on the DVD boxed set became the cover image for the book. Klebanoff brought senior editors of Reader’s Digest into Vanguard’s offices and pitched colleagues at Parade Magazine (many of his clients wrote for Parade). Consequently, both Reader’s Digest and Parade participated in the launch of the book.

The result

The Haley family earned in three years what would have taken Random House twelve years. The celebration of Roots and its author substantially helped the long term life of the book and even increased sales of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Since then, Vanguard has re-upped its promotion of Roots every January, during Black History Month. With creative editorial and marketing strategies executed in parallel, even deep backlist titles can yield substantial frontlist-like results.

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