Publisher Sues Authors Who Didn't Produce Books

The Penguin Publishing Group recently filed suit against a dozen authors who failed to produce a manuscript after getting an advance. The advances ranged from $10,000 to $81,000.

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A lot of would-be professional writers dream of someday getting a book contract that includes an advance - enough money paid upfront, to let them quit their day job and write full time.

Of course, those advances do come with an expectation that an author will actually write the book. The Penguin Publishing Group recently filed suit against a dozen authors who failed to produce manuscripts after getting an advances. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Let's face it, writing is hard. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman famously turned his own writer's block into a movie, "Adaptation," starring Nicholas Cage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ADAPTATION")

NICHOLAS CAGE: (as Charlie Kaufman) To begin...to begin...how to start? I'm hungry. I should get coffee; coffee would help me think. But I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee.

NEARY: Publishers have always known that talented writers can't churn out material like clockwork, says literary agent Miriam Gotteridge. So traditionally, the business gave authors a lot of leeway when it came to their contractual obligations.

MIRIAM GOTTERIDGE: And we've all heard stories of Ford Madox Ford and Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe; and how they got advances from their publishers, even though they were probably just, you know, drinking all of the advance money. You know, the industry was about creativity, and about producing. The hope was always about, who is going to produce the next masterpiece.

NEARY: But the days when publishers were willing to lose a little money, in the hopes of procuring the next masterpiece, may be coming to an end.

ELIZABETH WURTZEL: There's no reason to sue me. There was a reason to say look, we're really serious; and we need to talk about this.

NEARY: Elizabeth Wurtzel, best known as the author of "Prozac Nation," is one of a dozen authors being sued by the Penguin Group for failing to deliver their books on time. The advances ranged from $10,000 to 81,000. Wurtzel got 33, to write a book on helping teenagers cope with depression.

WURTZEL: I think at some point, they did send me a letter about this. I mean, I think it's one of those things that I probably should have dealt with, and didn't, because I'm an author; and I'm not good about this stuff.

NEARY: Wurtzel says she started the book and could have finished it; but her editor left the company, and no one else at Penguin pursued the project. Wurtzel says Penguin is simply trying to make a point, with the lawsuit.

WURTZEL: I see that they're trying to act like a real business, that doesn't treat authors differently from any other contractor. But having said that, a real business would make a business decision that would say that their relationship with me is of value to them. It should be of value to them.

NEARY: It should be of value, says Wurtzel, because "Prozac Nation" is a best-seller. It's made a lot of money for the company. In fact, she says, Penguin can get the money she owes it, from her royalties. But literary agent Robert Gottlieb says Penguin can afford to take a loss on these advances.

ROBERT GOTTLIEB: The whole notion of suing these authors, is so wrong-headed. I'm astounded by it.

NEARY: Ever since news of the lawsuits was first reported on the Smoking Gun website, Gottlieb has been an outspoken critic of Penguin. He says the sums of money involved, are not worth a lawsuit.

GOTTLIEB: I would advise any publisher who does this, that they're setting themselves up for enormous criticism and risk. I mean, in today's world, it never looks good when you're suing somebody, who earned $20,000 for writing a book over a period of a year or two.

NEARY: For its part, Penguin declined to be interviewed for this story, but did release a statement saying it regretted initiating litigation; but did so only after repeated attempts at amicable resolutions, were ignored.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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