King is ‘living history, not ancient history’

Michele Rubin was 5 years old and living in Norwalk, Conn., when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died.

She remembers her parents taking her to a memorial near downtown surrounded by “rings and rings” of police. “I don’t remember seeing many white faces” like mine, she says, “and that made an enormous impression” on me.”

Little did she realize the role King would play in her life. More than 40 years later, Rubin, of the Writers House agency in New York, is the literary agent for the King estate. She recently contracted with Beacon Press for an ambitious new publishing campaign designed to introduce King’s writing to new generations of readers.

Q: How did you get to be literary agent for the King estate?

A: Writers House has been around for over 35 years. We acquired the Joan Daves literary agency, and Joan Daves was Dr. King’s editor back in the 1950s. Then she became a literary agent and Dr. King had her represent him. Many years later, Joan was getting older and Writers House acquired her agency, and she became part of Writers House. She has since died.

Q: The principals died and the relationship just continued?

A: Exactly. It’s been an ongoing relationship direct from Dr. King to Joan through Mrs. [Coretta Scott] King’s time.

Q: When did you start working on the account?

A: I started working on it closely in the late ’90s. The agency represents it and I became the individual agent assigned to it.

Q: Do you have to keep up personal relationships and come to Atlanta?

A: I don’t come to Atlanta often. Everything is [handled] on the phone and e-mail, all the time. In some ways, that has made life easier all across the board because people are very far-flung.

Q: What does it mean that Beacon Press will be the “exclusive trade publisher” for MLK’s books?

A: Beacon Press is a trade press, meaning they are a readers’ press. They produce books that go into all the bookstores, all the schools, That’s what we call the trade side. And in Beacon’s case, that trade side also includes the Christian book market, which is sort of a separate distribution chain.

Q: Obviously, there’s a big Christian market for these?

A: Oh, it’s huge, huge. And, you know, a lot of times the big trade houses in New York only have a small Christian distribution focus. Having a house like Beacon that really knows how to do that in sort of a sleek, focused way is going to be very helpful, I think.

Q: So that is what Beacon had going for it?

A: Beacon has a lot going for it. They’re completely editorially independent of any enormous multinational media conglomerate. They are affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association. And they are nonprofit. So I felt like they’d be focused on the books, and not only be looking at what kind of money they can make from them. They were one of Dr. King’s original publishers. They published “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” originally, I want to say, in 1967. Their commitment to social justice and the politics that Dr. King stood for and the social justice that he fought for go way back. That literally is their mission as a publisher.

Q: You’ve been quoted saying Beacon is “not treating the material like history.” What does that mean?

A: What it means is that they’re treating it like living, contemporary material that can be newly heard over and over and over again. As generations come and go and we move away from events of his life, it starts to feel like ancient history to young people. Beacon is very committed to making this living history, not ancient history.

Q: So this is an effort to boost Dr. King as an inspirational author for a new age?

A: Absolutely, 1,000 percent. We want the world to know him anew, and to look at him anew, and to hear his voice again in a new and vibrant way.

Q: I imagine you’ve read most of the work, if not all of it?

A: Well, there’s no reading all of it, let me tell you (laughing). There’s no reading all of it because there’s always something new. But I’ve certainly read a lot of it. And it’s extraordinary how vivid and current and undated it is.

Q: How many books are we talking about?

A: I think we’re projecting four to five a year for the next five years.

Q: What will the marketing campaign will be like?

A: The first books are launching around his birthday. The first two are “Stride Toward Freedom” and “Where Do We Go From Here?” They’re in beautiful editions. It’s an imprint, so there will be a cohesive look to them. They’ll look like a reader’s library.

Q: I’ve read that new books will be created out of the King archive. What will they be like?

A: Those will be our new anthologies, where we’re taking material and putting them in new thematic groupings. There could be a book on Dr. King and peace, a book on Dr. King and labor. It’s a legacy series. There will be an introduction by a scholar, but we’re not doing biographies or narrative histories. What we are doing is re-presenting his own words.

Q: Dr. King’s children are famous, or infamous, for their squabbles. Do you deal directly with them? How has that worked?

A: I have a relationship with Dexter King and it’s a fabulous relationship. He’s wonderful to work with. He is a gentleman and just a lovely person and smart and mindful. I work through him and it’s always been a very positive, productive relationship.

Q: You don’t deal with the other siblings?

A: No. We dealt with Mrs. King [who died in 2006] and now we deal with Dexter.

Q: Do the Kings stand to profit a lot from this?

A: Certainly. Beacon has a contract in which they paid something for this, but this is not an enormous amount of money in the publishing world. Remember, Beacon is a nonprofit. There’s money that’s paid in any book contract that’s the up front money when someone signs a book contract. Beyond that, it’s going to be a long time before anybody is seeing any profits from this.

Q: Can you ballpark what Beacon paid for it?

A: No, I can’t. But I can say this is really about getting his words back into print in every way we possibly can.

Q: What’s it like for you to tell people that one of your clients is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

A: (Laughing a little) I have to say, it’s extremely thrilling. This material is of such profound consequence that to have any tiny affiliation with it is incredibly humbling. It’s staggering when you go back and read his work. You can’t believe how young he was. You cannot believe the brilliance of his mind, or the strength of his character. You cannot wrap your head around what this man did and who he was.