Death is not the final chapter: the lucrative world of literary estates
The growth of streaming services, demand for audio books and the globalisation of publishing are a boon for a writer’s descendants
When John Updike died a decade ago, the literary agent Andrew Wylie persuaded the American novelist’s estate to let him handle posthumous deals for his work. It did not have great expectations — “I’m rather puzzled by what’s in it for an agent,” one co-executor mused at the time.
There turns out to be plenty in it. Not only are Updike’s Rabbit novels being adapted for television by Andrew Davies, the leading UK screenwriter, but producers are mining for gold in the other estates Wylie represents. Philip Roth, his former client, died in 2018 and HBO is making Roth’s novel The Plot Against America (2004) into a six-part series, starring Winona Ryder and Zoe Kazan.