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Penguin sues authors for advances. Books are a business.

Cash it in‘I don’t get up in the morning and say: Am I inspired? …No, I’m not. I won’t work. ‘cos, God, how often would I ever work, you know?’

These words were spoken last week by one of the world’s most prolific authors, J.K. Rowling, and summed up quite nicely something I think many people want to forget about literature: books are a business; writing is work. Our explosive amnesia surrounding the b-word was highlighted again after reading the incredible reaction to news that Penguin US decided to sue a few authors after the books they were paid to write were not written.

The authors in question are listed on The Smoking Gun, and include Elizabeth Wurtzel, who was paid a $33,000 advance to write a book for teenagers with depression. This never appeared, and Penguin are suing her, along with four other authors of undelivered manuscripts, for their advance plus interest.

The Independent framed the situation with the blame finger firmly pointed at the money-hungry publishers, saying the authors had ‘allegedly fail[ed] to deliver books on time’. This sentence suggests the books might have been sent a day late in the post, or arrived half an hour after their stridently imposed deadline. In reality, one of the authors was due to deliver in 2004 – by my standards, that manuscript is more missing than late.

There may be some reason, either contractual or political, why Penguin should have sucked it up and let the authors keep the money that I am completely unaware of (I don’t work in editorial or contracts). But sentences like ‘while everyone agrees that Penguin is within its legal rights to try to recoup… few in the industry think they should‘ make me wonder what sort of industry this is. That rogue ‘should’ speaks volumes of an underlying pretension; some assumption that authors are beyond reproach.

In the same Bloomberg Businessweek article, Robert Gottleib is quoted saying: ‘These are not large sums of money… These are write-offable.’ $33,000. That’s a person’s salary. I would love to live in the publishing world where that amount of money is ‘write-offable’, but sadly I am fixed in this bleak reality where seeing zero return on that size of investment counts as a significant loss.

There are allegations sitting next to this whole debacle that publishers reject novels when the manuscript is not up to scratch and then demand their advances back. This seems slightly more sinister to me: surely the burden of risk there lies with the publisher rather than the author. I find it odd that quality and taste, such arbitrary measures, should be stipulated in a business contact.

However, by all accounts the manuscripts in question were not even given the opportunity for rejection because they simply didn’t materialise. Entering into a debate about whether or not contacts in general are favourable to authors does not clear up the question of whether these authors broke the contracts they took.

For me, this is not an argument against publishers just as it’s not an argument for self-publishing despite how much so many would love to frame it this way. It is a business reality. By romanticising books as a purely inspired creative pursuit, are we ignoring the fact that writing is work and advances constitute a business investment?

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Felice Howden

Felice Howden had opinions before she knew what the word 'opinion' meant. She wrote for the publishing and ideas blog Socratic Ignorance Is Bliss, and has had short stories published around the place. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2008 with a degree in English and Philosophy, and now spends her time typing code and hatching brain eggs for the future of publishing in a major publishing house.
  • Beamsley

    Well said – what other industry gives you a large sum of money and doesn’t insist on you delivering something for it?! It’s a contract – the authors are getting the money in exchange for something. If they don’t deliver, the Publisher gets their money back and the contract is dissolved. Imagine you’re paid upfront for a car that never arrives. Does the dealer just get to keep that money?! No way – you’d take them to court to get it back.

  • http://twitter.com/FeliceTherese Felice Howden

    I would also like to add that readers returning books to bookshops because they didn’t like it is insane. Actually insane.

    • Marc Cabot

      It’s pretty rational on the part of the buyer, but I agree that it’s insane to let them do it. :)

  • http://twitter.com/MWheelaghan Marianne Wheelaghan

    great post – I’d like to be given the chance not to return a $33,000 advance, ha ha! I too don’t fully understood why writing is seen as a creative pursuit rather than “work”, maybe then readers would see the sense in paying a fair price for a book. Ah well, we can dream ;) As for readers returning books they don’t like, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ……

  • Marc Cabot

    Hear, hear. You made the deal. Live up to it or give the money back.

    Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about sales accounting.

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