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Penguin lawsuit would force authors to repay book advances

September 28, 2012|By Carolyn Kellogg
  • Herman Rosenblat with his wife, Roma, at their Florida home.
Herman Rosenblat with his wife, Roma, at their Florida home. (J. Pat Carter / Associated…)

Penguin filed suit last week against a number of authors in New York State Supreme Court in an effort to get them to repay book advances, plus interest. The Smoking Gun dug into the paperwork and revealed that Penguin is asking for authors to repay advances of $20,000 to about $80,000.

Four of the five authors in the Smoking Gun report were under contract to submit books to the publisher but ostensibly did not. They are political writer Ana Marie Cox, "Prozac Nation" author Elizabeth Wurtzel, the New Yorker's Rebecca Mead and "Hip-Hop Minister" Conrad Tillard.

Publishing has tried this before, and it didn't go well. In 1997, a struggling HarperCollins canceled a number of authors' contracts and then tried to require the writers to pay back advances if the books sold elsewhere. After intense critcism, HarperCollins reversed its decision.

Penguin's recent move also came under fire. Robert Gottleib of Trident Media Group, a literary agency whose clients include Stephen Colbert, Justin Cronin and Deepak Chopra, posted one of the top comments on the Smoking Gun item, beginning: "Penguin this is wrong headed. Authors beware." Most discussion followed in that vein, criticizing the publisher for filing suit.

Bucking the trend, award-winning YA author John Green tweeted, "If you are paid for a book you don't write, you should have to return the money. That seems pretty obvious to me."

One author caught up in the suit actually had completed his book; advance copies had been circulated. That was Herman Rosenblat, whose memoir "Angel at the Fence" told the story of how he'd been sustained while in a Nazi concentration camp by a girl who secretly passed food to him at the fence. That girl was Roma, who would later become his wife.

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Rosenbat is a survivor of a sub-camp of Buchenwald, but there hadn't been a girl who helped him at its fence. Scholars pointed out that it wasn't possible for people on either side of the fence to get close enough to throw food across it. At first, Rosenblat said that he remembered differently, but then he admitted to having made the story up.

Berkeley Books, a division of Penguin, canceled the book and immediately asked him to return his $30,000. Now the publisher says Rosenblat, who is in his 80s, owes that plus at least $10,000 in interest.

Does Penguin have any hope of getting the advances back? Could filing the suit fulfill some other business requirement?

"Penguin regrets that it had to initiate litigation in these cases, and it did so reluctantly, only after its repeated attempts at amicable resolutions were ignored," Penguin said in a statement. The publisher declined to make any further comment.

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From the department of unintended irony, courtesy Barnes & Noble

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