Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Santa Quits Smoking! Is It Right To Alter A Classic Book?

Should we alter a classic book because doing so could save lives and help society?

That’s a heavy question that one of my clients recently answers with a resounding Yes!

Pamela McColl, a Canadian child advocate took a work that is in the public domain and edited out a few lines without adding new text or substituting new words.  The result?  She removed references to Santa smoking a pipe from what’s arguably the most famous children’s holiday poem in the history of the country.

Twas The Night Before Christmas was originally published nearly 190 years ago in a newspaper, anonymously.  It has appeared in book form for at least 160 years. Last year it was on the best-seller list for 36 weeks.  The book gave rise to the modern interpretation of the fat, jolly, gift-giving Santa that kids know and love today.

Pamela made the edits in hopes of combating the early introduction of smoking to kids.  One can say she has good intentions.  Others may call her a politically correct censor but that would be wrong-headed.  Here’s why:

First, the original version of the book is still available, pipe and all. No one says not to sell it. No government or library says ban it.  She is asking for parents to make a choice – smoke-free Santa or the original version. It will be up to consumer to select which book to buy and read. It turns out there are hundreds of versions of this book that have already been published, including one version where pirates are included.

Second, her changes don’t impact the story one bit as far as its enjoyment, message, or intention. But the omission of a few words make a possible life-death influence on children.

Third, it’s an expression of free speech. She has the legal right to alter the original and the right to publish whatever book she chooses to.  To oppose her, is to oppose the First Amendment.

As a purist, we may not want one to tinker with a book but as long as it is made clear to consumers that changes were made and as long as the original is still available, I don’t see a problem here.  If it spurs us to look at other classics and to edit out things of a similar nature it would be a step in the right direction, if done carefully and openly.  Sometimes, books, like political views or other values, need updating so they can reflect the times we live in. Last year a version of Huckleberry Finn was published without references to the N word.

McColl’s PR campaign is just getting under way, so it remains to be seen what type of reaction the media and consumers will have. The New York Post covered the debate in a recent article in its Sunday edition and raised the specter of censorship at work. Other media outlets highlighted the potential health benefits of the revised work.

Another interesting aspect to what McColl did is that her book highlights an interesting approach to publishing, where you take a classic in the public domain and republish an altered version.  Many publishers will sell copies of the same public domain work, such as Shakespeare or the Bible. But many will add in commentary and analysis to their edition, so as to distinguish why the consumer should buy from them.

The idea, however, of altering a classic and reselling it could be a growing industry, especially with ebooks.  A publisher can add in photos, artwork, additional passages, etc. and conveniently sell the revised classic without paying royalties or having to market the book with the same challenges of marketing a new book by an unknown author.

And, if you are like McColl and want to take up a social cause such as smoking, you can publish revised books that potentially improves the quality of life for others.

But be prepared to deal with critics who may think you are destroying the very book you seek to preserve.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. Please note Pamela McColl is a client of the publicity firm that I work for.  You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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