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How discontinuing the most popular edition of To Kill a Mockingbird can hurt schools

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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The iconic lavender book cover you remember from your eighth-grade English class will soon be a thing of the past. The New Republic reports that Harper Lee’s estate is discontinuing the mass-market paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.

This does not mean Mockingbird will no longer be available in paperback — the trade paperback edition continues — but it does mean the novel will no longer exist in the publishing industry's cheapest possible format.

Mass-market paperbacks are printed on flimsy paper with the lines of text packed tightly together; they're far less expensive to produce and ship than trade paperbacks, which are identical to their corresponding novels' hardcover editions on the inside but bound in paper instead of cloth. The tight printing of mass-market paperbacks makes them slightly harder to read and hence unpopular with adult buyers, but it also makes them budget-friendly, and thus extremely popular with schools. Mockingbird costs $8.99 in mass-market paperback, as opposed to $14.99 in trade paperback. Your first copy of the novel was probably the mass-market edition, with the aforementioned lavender cover and the picture of a bird flying past Boo Radley’s tree.

The copyright for To Kill a Mockingbird is owned by Lee's estate, now executed by Lee's lawyer, Tonja Carter, in the wake of Lee's death in February. The estate licenses most of Mockingbird's printing rights to various publishers: HarperCollins publishes the trade paperback edition (as well as the hardcover and special editions), but up until now the mass-market paperback rights have been licensed to Grand Central, an imprint of Hachette. That license is set to expire at the end of April, and according to emails obtained by the New Republic, it will not be renewed. Publisher’s Lunch reports that Grand Central sold almost 567,000 copies of the mass-market Mockingbird in 2015.

The decision to discontinue the mass-market paperback edition is only the latest in a series of controversies surrounding Carter. In February of 2015, when HarperCollins announced its plans to publish Go Set a Watchman (either the first draft or the sequel of Mockingbird, depending on whom you ask) — ostensibly with the full approval of the notoriously reclusive and press-shy Lee — many speculated that Carter was manipulating her elderly client. And last week, Carter successfully had Lee’s will sealed from the public.

Carter has not made any public statement about the choice to discontinue the mass-market paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. We can speculate, however, that discontinuing the cheapest available version of the book may lead to corresponding increases in the royalties owed to Lee's estate, and eliminating one of the licensees means consolidating the revenue stream. The decision could well lead to a big payday for the estate, regardless of its effect on school budgets across the country.