Publishing giant Penguin is suing a dozen writers to get its money back. The scribes in arrears either didn’t deliver a manuscript, did so way past deadline, or—believe it or not—published the book under contract with another publishing house. The legal action shouldn’t come as a surprise: those stringent industry-standard contracts writers sign almost always require that the proposed book gets written. Best-selling author Elizabeth Wurtzel (“Prozac Nation”), for instance, sure can tell a story but according to Penguin she’s not such a careful reader of the not-so-fine print. She allegedly got $33K from the publisher to pen a tome about helping teens cope with depression. If the teens are still waiting for her help, they’re in trouble: no book was forthcoming. Some people, presumably Penguin’s lawyers among them, believe she might have occasionally bought vittles with that advance while writing “The Secret of Life: Commonsense Advice for the Uncommon Woman,” which came out a year later with competitor Ballantine Books.
Social media is ablaze with writers voicing outrage and comparing the profits of the publicly traded Penguin with the alluring image of a struggling, perhaps even hungry writer whose inspiration can’t simply be called forth by such mundane things as the Gregorian calendar and petty legal obligations. This contingent labels the lawsuits Draconian. Why go after people who are clearly struggling with their art for a “write-off-able” $50K here and there? Penguin is going after “even Holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat” who, it turned out, lied about the premise of his memoir, which involved meeting his wife in a concentration camp… and lied to Oprah, of all people. (Rosenblat advance, $30k.) Anyway, before sounding off against the big bad wolf, er, Penguin, some writers might do well to do the math and make sure they don’t blow their own houses down. If Ana Marie Cox (founder of Wonkette) doesn’t return her $80k advance that means less PR money is available for the next book that actually was written, edited, approved, and printed. Total money Penguin is trying to recoup is about $500k, the cost of three full-page ads in The New Yorker—or ten $50K advances, one of which might be yours.