How Dead Authors Are Making a Killing in Hollywood

Illustration by David Galletly

A slew of deceased (or otherwise retired) writers — from Stieg Larsson to Robert Ludlum — are digging up major profits with posthumous releases and movie adaptations of their "latest work."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Her 2015 best-seller,The Monogram Murders, sold 500,000 copies. She's got two film projects underway at Fox — including one to be directed by The Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum — and a miniseries in development at Lifetime. Not to mention a new app launched this month.

You'd never know Agatha Christie has been dead for nearly 40 years.

Agatha Christie Ltd., which has been managing the late British crime novelist’s estate since 1955 (she died in 1976), launched a storytelling app on Nov. 12 in the latest effort to keep Christie’s stories accessible to modern audiences. The app tells Christie’s short story "The Mysterious Mr Quin" through social media to reach the "young, app-oriented generation who are used to getting their drama through their social media feed rather that watching television,” says Agatha Christie Ltd. CEO Hilary Strong, who runs the estate with James Prichard, the author’s great grandson.

Christie is considered the best-selling author of all time with more than 2 billion copies of her books sold worldwide, but the estate, like many others for iconic authors, is tasked with preserving her legacy while also introducing her work to younger generations. To do so, the Christie Estate, which Strong says received around a dozen calls from Hollywood per week before hiring WME to handle its deals two years ago, has set up a handful of recent film and TV adaptations, including the two at Fox.

“It’s about finding people to work with who are at the top of their game creatively, but also really understand Agatha Christie,” says Strong, who adds that Hollywood projects are the best way for Christie’s stories to reach fans around the world. “One of the dangers when you have a very deep library is to make sure you approach exploitation in a careful and strategic way rather than just grabbing the low-hanging fruit.”

Christie is just one of a slew of literary power players that aren't letting a little thing like mor­tality get in the way of their income stream. Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, died in 2004, but in September his publisher, Knopf, came out with The Girl in the Spider's Web, selling more than 200,000 hard covers and e-books in its first week (with a movie in development at Sony). Harper Lee isn't dead, but at 89 she is deaf and blind and hasn't written a published word in more than 50 years.

Yet this summer, when HarperCollins released her To Kill a Mockingbird sequel, Go Set a Watchman, it became the publisher's fastest-selling novel ever (1.1 million copies in less than a week). Dead authors like Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton, Elmore Leonard and even Dr. Seuss have been cranking out new material almost as fast as when they were alive — some excavated from old, never published drafts (like Lee's book), others whipped up out of whole cloth by literary impressionists (like Larsson's).

This isn't a new practice. Ian Fleming's publishers have been keeping the author busy since the 1970s, even though the author died in 1964. So far, 25 posthumous James Bond novels have been published under Fleming's banner (Kingsley Amis wrote a bunch), while his name has survived on the credits of five decades of Bond films (including Spectre, which opened on Nov. 6 with $70 million). The movies, in turn, boost book sales.

After Daniel Craig's Casino Royale came out in 2006, for instance, Fleming's 1953 novel began appearing on best-seller lists (No. 133, but still). "There's a whole brand awareness [during a film's release]," notes Jeffrey Weiner, who has managed Ludlum's estate since the author's death in 2001. He's planning to release a new Bourne novel in June, just in time for the arrival of the fifth Bourne film (which will reunite Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass).

"We've kept Ludlum alive in the public eye," says Weiner. "Most people reading his books today and seeing the movies have no idea that he's not alive."

Part of the trick of keeping a dead author's activity brisk is finding just the right voice to take his or her place. Even well-established writers like Jeffery Deaver (who did one of the Bond novels) and Eric Van Lustbader (who did one of Ludlum's) were asked to submit sample chapters and offer extended pitches. But when it's done correctly, it can be extremely lucrative.

Vince Flynn died in 2013, but his new Mitch Rapp novel, The Survivor, ghostwritten by Kyle Mills, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in October (and spiked back catalog sales).

Surprisingly few authors plan for their literary afterlife. "It never came up," says Peter Leonard about his father Elmore's wishes for his literary estate. The younger Leonard, the author of six books, is writing a novel based on a character his father (who died in 2013) wrote about in his Justified series. "We never talked about me picking up his characters," he says. "But he knew he wasn't going to live forever."