After Dumping Wylie, Mailer Estate Wrangles With Random House

mailer After Dumping Wylie, Mailer Estate Wrangles With Random HouseLast week, a professor from Pennsylvania named Michael Lennon sold a book to Simon & Schuster about his old friend Norman Mailer. It’s a biography, this book—one that Mailer authorized Mr. Lennon to write before he died last November at the age of 84. Simon & Schuster is reportedly paying Mr. Lennon $800,000 for his efforts, which is evidently a more generous sum than what the flagship imprint of Random House, Mailer’s publisher since the mid-’80s, was willing to part with when Mr. Lennon’s agent, a lawyer who specializes in publishing law, put the biography before them. The lawyer, Boston-based John “Ike” Williams, took outside bids on the book upon receiving Random House’s initial offer, and ultimately went with the house that could pay his client the most money.

It was not the first time since last November that the people overseeing Mailer’s estate—a team composed of friends and family members, including Mailer’s widow, Norris Church—found their interests at odds with those of Random House.

The first involved a collection of letters written by Mailer that Mr. Lennon had been compiling and editing on and off for about five years—a collection that the folks at Random House had assumed was theirs to publish as soon as it was ready. At one point, the collection was scheduled to be published right around now, but as Mailer’s longtime literary agent, Andrew Wylie, put it in an interview with Pub Crawl back in January, “everyone was steered off course by Norman’s death,” and there was suddenly “a lot of stuff that had to be figured out in connection with setting up the estate.”

One of the things that had to be determined was whether Mr. Wylie’s agency would continue to represent Mailer to publishers even though the author was no longer alive. The answer turned out to be no, and though Mr. Wylie—who has repeatedly declined to comment in any detail on his relationship with the Mailer estate since first asked about it last January—does retain oversight over all the works he sold on Mailer’s behalf prior to the author’s death, all unpublished material will be represented through the estate itself by Larry Schiller, Mailer’s friend and collaborator of more than 30 years.

Things get complicated because the contract that Mr. Wylie negotiated for Mailer was extremely unusual, structured as it was around monthly payments as opposed to advances. The deal, according to several sources with knowledge of the situation, was that Random House could publish any book Mailer wrote while receiving those payments without paying him anything extra upfront. A clause in the contract specified that the terms were applicable only to books, as opposed to any other kind of writing Mailer did, such as magazine articles, for instance, or speeches.

Whether the letters collection Mr. Lennon was working on was covered by the monthly payments was not immediately clear. As far as Random House was concerned, it was, but people in the estate, upon taking the reins from Mr. Wylie, felt differently. Well aware that letters collections tend to generate rather modest sales, the estate members wanted to explore their options in terms of selling off the trove of letters in pieces rather than in the form of a collection. After all, there were something like 60,000 of these things stored at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, and it was quite likely that placing them one-by-one—the way they did when they sold the rights to a stack of letters to The New Yorker earlier this year—would be more advantageous to the estate than simply handing the rights to their publication in book form over to Random House.

The collection has thus been postponed indefinitely, and though at one point last winter there was no certainty that Random House would still get to publish it, the publisher’s director of publicity, Carol Schneider, said this week that the letters collection is definitely forthcoming.

Asked whether the collection would come out before Lennon’s biography for Simon & Schuster—an outcome which the estate, not to mention Simon & Schuster, would surely like to avoid—Ms. Schneider said the timing has not yet been determined.

lneyfakh@observer.com