Friday, August 04, 2006

Words and dollars

Kevin Dettmar, one of the co-editors of the twentieth-century selections in the Longman Anthology of British Literature, has a fascinating piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education about writers whose permission fees are so high that the balance is tipped against their inclusion (I'm not sure you'll be able to read this without a subscription--if you've got a university account, though, you should be able to get the electronic edition through the library catalog--but I've pasted in quite a bit of the text below, and it would make an interesting handout to give to students using an anthology in a literature class who might be otherwise oblivious to these factors):

A portion of every dollar we spend on permissions to reprint is charged against the royalties of the textbook's editors, which means that we need to be prudent without being downright stingy. In effect, every dollar in permissions cost is split between the editors and the students who buy the book: We editors split permissions costs with the publisher, whose share is built into the price of the book, to the extent that the market will bear it. Because the publisher passes along its share to the book's purchasers — primarily students — the editors are in effect equal stakeholders with the students, equally interested in keeping permissions costs down. Permissions costs can mount up pretty quickly, contributing to students' complaints that their books are too expensive.

By my calculations, almost 70 percent of the permissions costs of the current edition of the Longman result from selections in the 20th-century volume. That should come as no surprise, since for most works published before 1923 the copyright has run out in this country. But the translations and scholarly editions chosen for earlier periods often are still covered by copyright protection, and payment must be made to the translators and scholars who have made older works accessible to modern readers. Those costs can be quite high: I was surprised to learn, for instance, that the volume on the Middle Ages is the next most expensive after that for the 20th century, accounting for nearly 15 percent of the permissions costs for the entire anthology. J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, is the second costliest item in the entire anthology (after Samuel Beckett's play Endgame). Is it worth it? Absolutely: Tolkien's is a vivid, accessible translation, and his dual credentials as a medieval scholar and fantasy author make him the perfect voice to render the tale. That said, we can still hope that the windfall of the Lord of the Rings movies will allow the Tolkien estate not to charge us as much the next time around.

... [Here he discusses the first category, of specific works that must be included--i.e. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land; Joyce; Woolf; etc.]

A second permissions category consists of authors who must be included, but whose work might be represented in different ways: The writer is canonical, but no one text is a sine qua non. Any anthology of British literature, for instance, must include a representative selection of the poems of W.H. Auden. Quarrels continue around the borders of the canon, but Wystan is in, end of story. He has also become fantastically expensive — at an average fee of $20 per line, the modest selections we've included come to more than $8,000. Those permissions costs are a bitter pill for an editor to swallow. While Auden is in no danger of disappearing from our anthologies, and consequently from our classrooms or our cultural consciousness — "September 1, 1939," for instance, was the most visible piece of literature in the days, weeks, and months following the September 11, 2001, attacks — one begins to think about how much one can afford, and what one can afford to do without. I resent being forced to make absurd calculations, such as five lines of Auden equals one page of Salman Rushdie. Although Auden is one of the 20th century's most gifted English-language poets, he is represented in the Longman by a mere handful of poems, most of which are somewhat familiar choices.

Other 20th-century poets have suffered that same diminution, as permissions fees in some cases have actually doubled in the short time between editions. We were forced to drop Dylan Thomas's poetic radio drama "Return Journey," for example, and Eavan Boland's poem "The Journey." Poets, because their work is available in smaller discrete units than that of playwrights and fiction writers, are especially susceptible to such cuts. It's hard to feel good about that state of affairs.

A third group comprises those authors and works that one tries to include not because one must have them, but because one wants them — an interesting writer who might otherwise be overlooked, but whose work deserves attention or has become newly interesting in light of recent scholarship; a text whose inclusion helps to enrich an otherwise two-dimensional rendering of an era, problem, or movement. For the second edition of the Longman, for instance, Jennifer Wicke, my editing partner for the 20th-century volume, had the brilliant idea of adding a handful of poems by the American poet Sylvia Plath, to accompany some poetry by her (in)famous British husband, Ted Hughes. Their difficult marriage is the stuff of literary legend and now big-screen fame (the 2003 film Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig). More to the point, in 1998 Hughes's poetic narrative of their partnership, Birthday Letters, was published posthumously, bringing the couple again to the forefront of literary and public consciousness.

Well, in the third edition Plath is gone again: Whether because of the recent resurgence of interest in her life (and perhaps poetry) among the American public, or some other cause, the fees demanded for reprinting just four poems suddenly rose to more than $3,500 for the U.S. and Canadian rights. Plath thereby crossed some kind of invisible line into the realm of extravagant indulgence. Assembling an anthology is a little bit like building a home: One goes into the project with big dreams, but after meeting with the architects and builders, certain features go by the boards; even more desires are sacrificed during construction, as costs overrun estimates. In our third edition, a smattering of poems by Sylvia Plath became those skylights in the kitchen that would have to wait for later.

Sometimes texts are omitted, or added, for the most idiosyncratic of reasons: This is my fourth category, probably best labeled "Misc." In thinking about contemporary responses to Eliot's The Waste Land, I very much wanted to include a poem by the contemporary Irish poet Thomas Kinsella (who also taught here in Carbondale for many years), the long poem "Nightwalker." But Kinsella himself refused permission. Why? His refusal had to do with the title of our anthology. Because we are convinced that the phrase "English literature" suggests an Anglophilic perspective that doesn't account for the vitality and diversity of British writing, which includes works by current and former members of the British Empire (is Rushdie an "English" writer?), ours is the Longman Anthology of British Literature. Mr. Kinsella objected that he is not a British writer, and of course he's right; "I am sorry to have to refuse, as I feel the adjective 'British' does not apply to my work," he wrote. On the other hand, we thought the Longman Anthology of English, Irish, Northern Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Indian, Pakistani, South African, and West Indian Literature was a bit unwieldy.

As our first edition was being prepared for press, back in 1998, we learned that permission to reprint Caryl Churchill's play Cloud 9 could not be granted. Ownership of rights to the play was then being decided in the British courts, and no one had legal standing to grant permission. The play was simply unavailable to us. Given that immovable object, Jennifer and I quickly turned to another script that we had hoped to include but hadn't found room for, Hanif Kureishi's screenplay for the wonderful film about the complexities of multicultural London, My Beautiful Laundrette. That text proved very popular with teachers and students, and by no means felt like a compromise or second choice. But when we sat down to plan the second edition, we learned that the legal status of Cloud 9 had been established and that the play would be available to us. Although it was a difficult decision, we decided to drop Kureishi to make room for Churchill — we couldn't pay, nor had we room, for both. Such is the horse trading that goes into assembling an anthology.

When we began planning the third edition, we decided to keep Cloud 9 — the play had been at least as popular with our readers as My Beautiful Laundrette, and we saw no reason to drop it. But when we applied for permission to reprint the play in the new edition, we learned that the play was now worth $10,000 up front, plus a percentage of the gross, which would have put the cost in excess of $13,000. After a good deal of soul-searching, I suggested that we contact Mr. Kureishi's people to see what it would cost to switch back to our first-edition favorite, My Beautiful Laundrette. The answer, to my delight, was $1,000.

And there was a bonus. Just as our volume was going to press, Mr. Kureishi published an essay in The Guardian, following the London subway bombings of last summer, about the costs and limitations of multicultural London. I thought the piece would make a wonderful companion to the screenplay, suggesting some of the ways that London has changed since 1985, when the script was written. Our deadline was so short — just one week — that our permissions staff told me there was no way we could clear permissions for the essay in time. I e-mailed Mr. Kureishi directly late on a Wednesday night and delivered my plea. I never heard back from him, but the following morning an e-mail message was waiting for me from the person who handles his permissions in the United States: "The author has granted his permission." Even better, he gave it to us for a song.

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