A couple of weeks ago, news broke that Penguin had filed lawsuits to reclaim a total of $411,800 (plus claimed interest of $129,000) from eight of its authors. Early reports were written before it was precisely known why Penguin had decided to sue these authors.
This didn't stop a number of people from condeming Penguin. At Publishing Perspectives, agent Robert Gottlieb was captured this way:
“Penguin this is wrong headed. Authors beware. Books are rejected for reasons other than editorially and publishers than want their money back. Publishers want to reject manuscripts for any reason after an author has put time and effort into writing them all the while paying their bills. Another reason to have strong representation. If Penguin did this to one of Trident’s authors we could cut them out of all our submissions.”
After the initial response, Penguin issued a statement that explained why it had decided to pursue repayment:
"Penguin invests in, nurtures and develops authors who write books that we publish and bring to readers. It devalues the hard work of the vast majority of our authors, and is unfair to our readers, if a few individuals can keep tens of thousands of dollars in advances without ever delivering anything to the publisher. For this reason, Penguin is asking these authors to repay the money they received for work that ultimately was never done."
I am sure that there are two sides to this story; that's one of the reasons we have courts of law. But if the facts hold up, the early critics owe Penguin an apology.
It's hard being an independent contractor, including a writer. But if someone handed me $50,000 to do some consulting and I, well, just didn't … they would be well within their rights to ask for the money back.
In most businesses, failing to deliver on a contractual obligation is a recipe for failure. In publishing, it can elevate you to a cause. No wonder we find ourselves running hard just to stay in place.
A bit of disclosure: For a conference in early 2010, I moderated a panel that included the agent Robert Gottlieb. He may have found the session forgettable; I did not.