The number one best-selling book on in this week’s New York Times best seller list is one first published in 1969: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou, the renowned poet and professor at Wake Forest University who passed away three weeks ago. Since she published that autobiography, Angelou’s acclaimed poetry has been published widely by Random House and initially reached a distinguished, though small, audience.
How that audience grew to a multi-million dollar phenomenon, and how her book is again number one, includes a fascinating story of entrepreneurship and law of general interest and especially for those interested in contract law. As a tribute to the distinguished author for literary, commercial and spiritual success, herewith an account of that saga, from my book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter.
In 1994, Butch Lewis, the former prize fighter and promoter of famous boxers such as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, conceived the idea of popularizing Angelou’s poetry by including it in Hallmark greeting cards and similar media. Lewis first met Angelou in early 1994 when the scrappy fighter asked the elegant poet to take a trip to Indiana with him to visit his boxing client, Mike Tyson, in prison. During the trip, Angelou and Lewis discussed how she might expand her readership by publishing her works in greeting cards. After negotiations, the two signed an informal letter agreement on November 22, 1994.
Angelou promised to contribute poetry exclusively to Lewis and he promised to promote its publication in greeting cards. The exclusivity feature was important, since it meant Angelou could not market her poetry without Lewis and Lewis need not fear that his efforts would be undercut by a last-minute switch to a competing promoter. Aside from exclusivity, the letter recited only basic terms, such as how they would later agree on what poetry to include, that Lewis would fund promotion, and how revenues would be shared—first to reimburse Lewis’ investment and expenses, then to split the rest equally. The letter said it would be binding until the two drew up a formal contract. Though Lewis prepared one in March 1997, it was never signed.
Lewis began marketing efforts immediately, though it took until March 1997 for Lewis and Hallmark to finalize terms—a three-year deal, covering any new poem Angelou produced during that time. In exchange, Hallmark would pay Angelou and Lewis a $50,000 advance against royalties, which would be paid at a flat 9% rate of total sales, with a guaranteed minimum of $100,000. Angelou’s greeting cards would be administered through Hallmark’s Ethnic Business Center, targeted to an African-American audience.
Lewis sent Angelou the proposed Hallmark agreement. By then, however, Angelou’s views of Lewis had curdled. For the Hallmark pitch, Lewis prepared sample cards and brought these for Angelou’s approval. Angelou found the display of caricatures of African-Americans distasteful and unreflective of her poetry’s meaning. Her impression of Lewis worsened when the two crossed paths in Las Vegas in 1997, where Angelou was appalled by Lewis’s behavior, which included punctuating his conversations by “grabbing his crotch.” Read More