Preserving the Copyright Value of Janson’s History of Art

At the time of his death, Harvard-trained art historian H. W. (“Peter”) Janson was the acknowledged master of the domain for both general and professional audiences. Longstanding chairman and professor of the department of art at New York University, Janson won numerous awards for his art scholarship. His body of work — books, articles, and presentations — solidified his reputation as the preeminent authority, but nothing did more to introduce the masses to the subject matter than his titanic textbook, History of Art, The Western Tradition.
Janson’s original publishing deal in 1959 was the stuff of a bygone era. There was no agent. He simply proposed the book — an enormous full color undertaking — to Harry Abrams, the founder of the eponymous publishing house, and Abrams published it three years later. In the 1950s, such handshakes were common between publishers and authors of textbooks and illustrated volumes.
Abrams established History of Art as the definitive text. And Abrams’ distributor, Prentice Hall, grew its audience considerably in schools and colleges. Maintaining market leadership in academic publishing, however, requires regularly scheduled revisions: used book dealers are quick to resell bestselling texts without economic benefit to authors or publishers; and sales representatives of competing texts are ready to swoop in with cutting edge research, fresh art, and a new copyright, all benefits to professors who want to look hip to students. The game is relentless.
Janson lived to complete a few of the frequent revisions of the book. When he died in 1982, his son Anthony, also a Harvard Ph.D. art historian, took over the project, now branded Janson’s History of Art.

In 2000, Tony Janson called Arthur Klebanoff out of the blue and asked him to represent him in “resetting” the Janson family’s arrangements with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., and Prentice Hall. The family had an excellent tax and estate lawyer, Ronald Wiener, who looked out for their financial assets, but no literary agent to watch over their intellectual property. The book’s track record of sales made it incredibly valuable, and the byzantine bundle of contracts suggested any number of favorable renegotiations. Before accepting the assignment, Klebanoff insisted upon representing all the involved family interests so that he spoke for 100 percent of copyright ownership. Tony introduced him to Wiener and other family members, and they unanimously agreed to retain him.
Klebanoff first explored the situation with Abrams. Although Prentice Hall controlled the economics, Abrams oversaw the contracts. There were rumors that La Martinière Groupe, Abrams’ new French owner, was looking to divest its textbook division. Given Abrams’ apparent disinterest in contract talks, Klebanoff recommended waiting until Abrams sorted out its corporate strategy. It finally did in 2002, by selling its text division to Prentice Hall. The press release highlighted Janson’s History of Art and its 4 million copies in print, nearly all of them sold in the United States.

Good, he thought. Klebanoff had what Prentice Hall wanted: long term editorial control over the book’s upgrades; clarification of control over such rights as digital formats, unimagined in Janson and Abrams’ initial contract; and a modern-form restated contract to replace the patchwork of fifty years of agreements and amendments. Prentice Hall had what the family wanted: control over the royalty structure and the sharing of those royalties among the newly commissioned contributors.
This last point mattered to the family because textbook contracts usually obligate authors to revise their work at their publisher’s request; and, if they cannot or will not deliver a revision, then publishers can hire other talent to do the job. Moreover, publishers can allocate whatever percentage of royalties they deem appropriate to the new contributors. Worse, some text contracts “step down” the originating author’s royalty rate to zero when that author dies or stops delivering fresh material. So, where a text is extremely successful and the author has become a brand name, these clauses obviously do not favor the author or his heirs.
Strategies and Negotiations

Prentice Hall took considerable time to review it publishing strategy before talking substantively about its plans for Janson. Meanwhile, to unify management of the intellectual property, Wiener recommended that the Jansons transfer ownership of the Janson name and the great scholar’s many writings to a trust. Klebanoff seconded this plan since it greatly increased licensing and publishing options.
After extensive negotiations over an extended period of time, both parties signed the restated contract in 2006, six years after being retained but just days before the New York Times reviewed the 7th edition of Janson’s History of Art, with major changes. In the article, “Revising Art History’s Big Book: Who’s In and Who Comes Out?” the reviewer asked what happened to Whistler’s Mother?

But both Prentice Hall and the family got what each wanted. Klebanoff even secured a role for Tony in selecting most of the contributors, and Prentice Hall has been using Janson’s History of Art to break new ground, dividing it into downloadable audio segments and supplementing it with an online digital art library.
Had Klebanoff realized that completing this assignment would take so long, he might not have said “yes.” Perseverance and downright stubbornness usually pay off for a literary agent. Here, he ultimately did receive a combination of fees and commissions, but he hesitates to boil it down to an hourly rate. If you want lucrative billable hours, then do not choose “literary agent” as your career. Klebanoff enjoys the creative freedom and continue searching for new projects for the Janson brand on behalf of the intellectual property trust. Why stop now?

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