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They Just Couldn't Make This Kind of Stuff Up

Publishing: Joan Collins' battle with Random House over the quality of her novels proves once again that courtrooms can be high camp.

February 14, 1996|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — It's a real-life soap opera on view in a lower Manhattan courtroom as Joan Collins, a star of TV's "Dynasty," plays Joan Collins, star author.

Did she live up to a $4-million contract with Random House requiring her to write two novels?

Were the two manuscripts she submitted to the publishing company "complete," as Collins claims?

Or should she have to return the $1.2 million that Random House had advanced her because the company claims in its lawsuit the material was unpublishable?

In New York State Supreme Court, the 62-year-old Collins, stylishly attired each day and chin up, appears no less ready for her close-up than she did during years of prime time. However, her real-life role is unfamiliar to the small audience watching in the courtroom or the many others following the trial on Court TV. Collins has to field often fumbling questions from her own attorney and to suffer the exasperated interruptions of Justice Ira Gammerman, who at one point cut off a rambling response and admonished her, "Try listening to the question."

To look beyond the legal theatrics is to find the publishing industry itself on trial. Here is Random House, the esteemed publisher of Colin Powell and Norman Mailer, owning up to a $4-million contract for fictional twaddle about a fairy-tale principality, largely because a soap star's name would propel sales.

Here is embarrassing testimony to the effect that Random House executives had last-minute concerns about the size of the Collins deal, but, as British publisher Rosemary Cheetham recalled, company chairman Alberto Vitale was said to be "very star-struck."

To be sure, only the purest of heart in publishing continue to believe that the industry is committed to disseminating literature. Rather, in this age of proliferating superstores and book-producing conglomerates, publishing has become commerce, profit and loss, a striving mainly to sign up the next big book, whether it's a collection of laughs by Jerry Seinfeld ("SeinLanguage" sold more than 1 million copies) or the frothy imaginings of Joan Collins.

This was illustrated last week during testimony by Cheetham, a defense witness who had worked with Collins during the actress' relationship with Random House and last year published a new novel by the actress at another British company. Asked if she originally noticed a difference in quality between Collins' rejected work and the manuscript of her most recent novel, Cheetham replied: "In terms of literacy, I would say there was no difference between them."

Judge, jurors and attorneys broke into loud laughter. Collins, mercifully, was not in the courtroom.

But still, as Cheetham also stated, Collins' new novel, to be retitled "Infamous" when published in the United States by Dutton in May, had an "excellent" return in Britain, selling more than 50,000 copies.

This trial arose in the absence of case law defining "complete" manuscript. The late Hollywood agent Irving Lazar had negotiated for Collins a rare clause in her contract that, the defense contends, obligates Random House to pay the actress for a "complete" manuscript even if the publisher found it unacceptable. The Collins camp maintains that it has the equivalent of a "pay or play" deal, a Hollywood term for an arrangement whereby the actor gets paid even if the film is not made.

"To a publisher, acceptability of a manuscript is a tremendously important concept," said David Gernert, who edited the novels of John Grisham as editor in chief of Doubleday, and now edits and represents the writer through the Gernert Co. Gernert said he viewed the Collins trial as the byproduct of "an unusual deal" with the actress, adding that the case had larger implications "only if someone took from this a strong desire on the part of celebrity authors to have more Hollywood-style deals."

The trial may have a "me too" effect, according to David S. Korzenik, a New York attorney and Court TV commentator who has represented authors and publishers. "Hollywood concepts are merging with publishing," Korzenik said. "But publishers will protect themselves by better defining what their relationship is with a celebrity . . . and what everyone's duties really are."

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