24 May 2011 (London, UK) - Headed by American-born, British-educated, 33-year old Dana Celeste Robinson, recently launched Knox Robinson Publishing is expected to release over seven titles this year. However, what should be an exhilarating experience for the newborn publishing house and its authors has been instead fraught with uncertainty.
“When I began this publishing house, I had no idea that the question of whether one could libel the dead was still moot,” Ms Robinson comments about the recent, now settled, libel case lodged by the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien against Steve Hillard, the American author of fiction novel "Mirkwood" as reported in The Guardian.
“Coming from an academic background, I can attest that for those who research history, academic works are a mixture of fact and conjecture. Indeed, if we can no longer imagine how historical figures may have made the decisions they made during their lifetimes or delve into the aspects (both good and bad) of their lives, then history as a discipline is dead,” she states.
The Tolkien case has been of particular interest to the managing director of Knox Robinson Publishing as the ruling had the potential to set a precedent for or against an author’s rights to create fictional works involving real people and the powers of an estate to control the use of names and reputations in works of fiction or even historical accounts. And although the case has now been settled, the door to litigation has been opened and more cases could follow. Several of the titles Knox Robinson intends to release this year contain fictionalizations of actual historical figures.
One such title,"Literally Dead", by author James Conroy includes characters such as Ernest Hemingway and Clarence Darrow. The novel is set in 1930s Chicago and is a murder mystery involving a literary society and America's greatest literary talents of that era. Conroy notes “Here in the United States much of our favorite and most successful literature has been based on real people. Our Founding Fathers; Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, have all been rendered in fiction with great dignity and respect. Consider the writings of Gore Vidal and Michael Shaara, or E. L. Doctorow’s "Ragtime" with its depictions of J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, and even Harry Houdini. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe have both appeared as sleuths in fictional mysteries, much to the enjoyment and edification of the reading public who might not otherwise have been exposed to these great masters.Without the presence of Hemingway, Clarence Darrow, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Nelson Algren [in my nove], the story I wanted to tell about the early days of unionism and the corruption prevalent in the City of Chicago of that era would have prompted little interest indeed. Those who have read it have congratulated me for bringing a significant part of American history, oft neglected, to life.”
Another Knox Robinson title, "Of Faith and Fidelity", by Cambridge-educated historian Dr Evan Ostryzniuk focuses on historical figures of the Western Schism (1378 - 1417) that nearly tore Christendom apart in the fourteenth century. Ostryzniuk comments “Historical fiction is not just another form of personal expression; the genre offers a perspective on the past that academic or even popular history cannot provide. Fictional representations can breathe life into the past and foster an organic link with the present through a common language. Historical memory in societies past was maintained through story-telling, a recognizable and easily understood medium that helped give meaning to existence as well as entertained. To inhibit or suppress the creation of fictionalized accounts of persons or events, whether past or present, would undermine an age-old form of human expression and close the door to a valuable means to interpreting life. Had the Tolkien estate succeeded in suppressing the fictional variant of the paterfamilias, it would have opened the door to further interference in the free exchange of ideas and images in the literary world. It would have been especially threatening to the growing industry of historical fiction, since authors would be hesitant to create works that might be subject to litigation.”
Mary Anne Lane is also an author at Knox Robinson and her book "Blood Banner", the first book in a trilogy on the Landsknechts, is scheduled for release in December. She agrees with Ostryzniuk’s assessment. “Not being able to use people from history in books would damage the world of literature because recent history could not be written,” she comments. “No war films could be made, nor books written about it. No cowboy films could be shown, no courtroom dramas. That means no 'They Died With Their Boots On', no 'Inherit the Wind', no 'Valkyrie'.”
However, authors, journalists and academics alike may soon receive greater protection from libel suits thanks to recently proposed changes to UK libel laws. As reported in The Independent, Ken Clarke, justice secretary and publisher of the draft bill, believes the proposed changes will ensure everyone the right to “speak freely and debate issues” without fear of libel actions, which have, according to Clarke, “Begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate and investigative journalism.”
The bill also seeks to end “libel tourism,” or the practice of suing individuals who do not live in the UK or an EU member state for libel in a British court.
Even if the law sways to their side, and the side of all publishers and writers of historical fiction, Knox Robinson Publishing still faces the question of where they fit within the industry structure. As a new publisher headed by a young woman prepared to leverage the growing popularity of eBooks, podcasts and social media, Robinson questions the hesitancy of established publishers to embrace technical mediums.
“I was surprised at the concern from the old guard about eBooks at the London Book Fair,” she says. “I believe that eBooks should be embraced by publishers. At Knox Robinson Publishing, we offer eBooks (in ePub and ePDF) for download directly from our website and other online bookstores including Apple's iBookstore, Waterstone's, Borders and Amazon. We also believe strongly in free content, we have free historical fiction, historical romance and fantasy short stories available for download and we have a podcast series 'Conversations about Fiction' in syndication, which you can subscribe to in Apple's iTunes. I have been using these tools for years and cannot imagine launching a publishing house in the twenty-first century without a social marketing plan.”
About Knox Robinson Publishing
Knox Robinson Publishing is an international, specialist publishing house committed to the production of well-written, fresh historical fiction, historical romance and fantasy. Established in London in 2010, Knox Robinson will release over seven titles in 2011.
Visit the website to listen to the podcasts, purchase the latest books and download free short stories.