He is unlikely to feature in literary forecasts for 2011, but F Scott Fitzgerald is set for a bumper year. On 1 January, 70 years after his death, he passed the all-important milestone in any creative career – the copyright on his body of work expired.
Fitzgerald was just one prestigious name to pass from artistic adolescence this year; Paul Klee, John Buchan and Eric Gill all share his fate. The question is, what future can these writers and artists expect once they have left the warm glow of legal protection and entered the murky twilight of the public domain?
“There are whole industries to exploit copyright licences. After those copyrights have gone it’s a free for all,” says Philip Jones of The Bookseller magazine. The treatment meted out to Jane Austen in 2009’s runaway success, the literary “mash up” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, might concern traditionalist Fitzgerald fans. “There will be an outbreak of Fitzgerald editions this year, undoubtedly,” says Derek Wright, director of Wordsworth Editions, the publishing imprint that pioneered the production of cheap out-of-copyright works in the early 1990s. “We will be publishing £1.99 editions of his novels as well as a collected works.”
Will the chronicles of America’s dissipated golden age henceforth become little more than pulp fiction? It seems unlikely. In fact, to be published by Wordsworth Editions is an accolade bestowed only upon the best-loved authors. They rely on bulk sales and the increased popularity that goes with it.
Few writers can claim this kind of esteem 70 years after their death. Fitzgerald will appear in a stable of thoroughbreds that includes Joyce, Dickens and Austen. E F Benson, creator of Mapp and Lucia, has also made the grade in 2011. Other writers are not so lucky. John Buchan, Scottish statesman and author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, has not. Out of copyright, and not rehabilitated in a cheap paperback edition, he runs the risk of obscurity. Thomas Wolfe was also rejected.
Choosing writers for paperback rehabilitation is an imprecise science. Pinned to the office wall at Wordsworth is a list of the last century’s most prominent authors with the date of their death. This morbid database is an essential part of the ongoing work of speculating on which authors will be commercially viable after 70 years. So what can Fitzgerald fans expect? Those who might wish to freely adapt the novel, by adding zombies for example, need to be aware that there is a whole Gatsby industry. This includes officially sanctioned plays and four feature films, including a Baz Luhrmann adaptation currently in the pipeline, whose intertwined rights do not disappear with those of the novelist. Fitzgerald famously stated, “There are no second acts in American lives.” It seems likely that for him there will be.