Robert Bork did it exceptionally well. Anthony Lewis didn’t do it at all. Chinua Achebe may still do it, I hope. Of course, it’s not precise to talk about these authors doing what I would have them do since by definition, it would’ve been quite beyond their power to literally do it. It’s probably better to speak of these authors’ publishers, estates, or other rights holders to their copyrighted works doing what I would much commend them for doing: using the authors’ deaths as an opportunity to sell their works by heavily discounting those works.
“What a macabre subject!” you may decry. I wouldn’t dispute that death and commercial transactions require some sensitivity to speak about, but since both invariably happen, and it’s not as if speaking about them in conjunction with each other somehow causes one to arrive sooner, I’m going to do it here.
People die. When those people happen to be famous and literary, a couple of things happen. One is that the count down to their copyright expiring starts. (That’s probably not the most sensitive thing I’ve ever written.) The second is that a lot of media coverage happens bringing a lot of visibility to the authors’ names and by extension, their books. Some publishers, in such a case, have the state of mind as well as contractual flexibility to use the spotlight to try to increase sales of the authors’ works. One of the ways to achieve that is to significantly discount these works shortly after their authors’ deaths.
Take Robert Bork, for instance. The e-book version of his Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline dropped to $2.99 right after his death (and is now back up to $9.78 on Amazon). Although I don’t have the data on his book sales, I would venture to guess that this was a smart business move on the part of Harper Collins, Slouching publisher. This said, none of Anthony Lewis’s publishers seems to have done the same thing (although I did miss the news of Lewis’s death by about 3 weeks, so please correct me if I’m wrong), and Chinua Achebe’s works didn’t see any price drops either (but I’m still holding hope that Things Fall Apart may get discounted still).
So in the face of complete lack of data, I will just have to stick with the uninteresting prior that heavy discounting soon after a writer’s death may not be everywhere profitable for every writer-book. If this is a considered business decision, then I have nothing else to say, but if this absence of discounting is due to either contract rigidity or publishers’ inattention, then what do you think are the chances that they will read this blog post, nod their heads vigorously, and discount those books that I want, huh?