NBCC and Penguin: A Match Made in Loosey-Goosey Ethics

As reported by both Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader and The New York Times‘s Motoko Rich this morning, Penguin Group is teaming up with Amazon and Hewlett Packard for a contest called The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Unpublished manuscripts will be first submitted to a group of Amazon’s top-rated reviewers (one suspects that all the manuscripts will pass Harriet Klausner’s loose standards with flying colors). From here, 100 finalists will be handed off to a panel consisting of Elizabeth Gilbert, agent Eric Simonoff, Penguin imprint founder Amy Einhorn, and NBCC President John Freeman.

The winner will receive a $25,000 advance and a publishing contract. But it is within these details that things start to get dicey. As Cader noted this morning:

The winner agrees to accept Penguin’s publishing contract “as is” and acknowledges it “is not negotiable…if he/she wishes to enter into the publishing contract being awarded.” But Penguin’s director of online sales & marketing Tim McCall says “it’s a good contract,” noting that “it is designed for someone who is getting their start in the business. That’s really what Penguin is looking for–a brand-new voice.”

In other words, the author, sidestepping the protective safeguards that an agent can ensure, has no leverage whatsoever in squaring away the contract details.

Likewise, since John Freeman is being billed in all publicity materials I can locate as “the president of the National Book Critics Circle” and has made no efforts to separate his personal participation from his association with the NBCC, I must therefore presume that, because Freeman is the head of the NBCC, the NBCC must, as a matter of course, endorse this contest, which represents authors abdicating all publishing rights, without discussion or compromise, to a single conglomerate. So is the NBCC now in the business of favoring one publisher above all others? That doesn’t seem like a sign of critical integrity to me. The NBCC’s support of this contest is no different from a critic who decides to throw his integrity to the wind and only review books by one publishing house.

While it is true that Freeman’s participation here is not an explicit “political activity” under the IRS code and Freeman is legally in the clear, it would make me feel more comfortable about the NBCC’s integrity if Freeman had lived up to the standards of what a “political activity” constitutes. Freeman’s alliance with Penguin is dangerously close to IRS requirements in which “organization leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to indicate clearly that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.”

It seems hypocritical for the NBCC to suggest a code of ethics for litbloggers when there remains not a single code of ethics for NBCC board members. (And why have the results for the NBCC ethics survey remained unannounced? Do ethics only apply to the online upstarts?) Shouldn’t a 501(c)3 organization of book critics stand for a variegated critical environment in which many publishers and critical voices are underneath one umbrella? And shouldn’t it stand for an environment in which organization leaders remain transparent about their activities and untainted from corporate influence?


  1. Come on Ed, your logic is absurd– and enough with this weird fixation on your old classmate. Follow your line of reasoning and every time Freeman (or anyone else from the NBCC who identified themselves as such in their byline) reviewed a book they’d be speaking for the entire organization.

  2. Brian: The difference here is that when I read a review by John Freeman, it says at the top of the page “by John Freeman,” so that I know that this is John Freeman’s opinion and not the NBCC’s. But when “John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle” is involved in a contest like this, as opposed to “John Freeman, freelance critic,” ethical questions concerning “organizational leaders” must be asked. This is not a fixation upon Freeman. As an NBCC member, I have a vested interest in how this organization chooses to represents itself. John Freeman just happens to be president right now. If it were a captain of integrity like John Leonard doing this, I’d be asking the exact same question.

  3. Sorry, Ed, I’m an NBCC member, too, and I also find fault with your logic here. I think categorizing this as “political activity” is an extreme reach; I also essentially agree with Brian. By your reasoning, if John Freeman signed his name on a bank loan, it would suggest that he was doing so on behalf of the NBCC. The man and the orgainzation are not the same thing. But more importantly, I think there’s a more fundamental point where you’re mistaken and that’s in objecting to Penguin’s ground rules (which you feel Freeman oughtn’t endorse). Honestly, this kind of thing is everday stuff in the film world, where contests from the Nicholl Fellowship to Disney’s screenwriting awards all come with iron-clad sign your life away contracts at the end of the rainbow. It’s a common enough tactic, offering a first timer some money and chance to see his or her work realized at perhaps not such favorable contract conditions – and there’s not a winner who would hesitate to sign on the dotted line. But I suspect Penguin’s deal isn’t much different than what they’d offer a first novelist, and I also think that until you, Cader or an agent have actually seen the contract in question, you’re just guessing – and thus, you’re critizing Freeman based on a guess – and you are a staunch believer in being able to back up positions with evidence. So this seems unfair to me.

  4. Oh but that said, I do think the whole litblog code of ethics thing was sad, embarrassing and petty, and I, too, confirmed that the NBCC does not have a blanket code of ethics for its members.

  5. Mark: Does Freeman sign a back loan stating “John Freeman, President of the NBCC?” No, he doesn’t. This is probably a simple case of the two of us differing on ethics. While I can agree with you that a man and the organization are not the same thing, in this case, Freeman has displayed lassitude in failing to separate his responsibilities as leader of a nonprofit organization and his own personal interests. It’s no different from a Congressman who receives a lobbyist’s money and fails to disclose.

    Had Freeman simply stated to Penguin, “Hey, I’m fine doing this. But can you make sure that the NBCC isn’t invoked?,” I would have had few problems with him being part of this contest. But instead the NBCC’s name is invoked and I must therefore presume that this is the kind of contest that the NBCC stands for. (Freeman has certainly not gone out of his way to clarify his involvement — either on these pages, in which he is open to respond to these charges, or at the Critical Mass site.)

    And if you honestly believe that Cader and I haven’t seen a contract, while I can’t speak for Cader, I find your assumptions here extraordinary presumptuous. I was once a paralegal, pal. And if you honestly feel that way about contracts and debut novelists, well then, I find your lack of faith in the little guy disturbing.

  6. Sorry, Ed, correct me because I’m genuinely not clear on this – are you saying you have seen and read the specific contract Penguin is offering? I didn’t say you’ve never seen a contract, amigo, I said I doubted you’ve seen this particular contract. Please correct me if I am wrong on this. And if you have, following your own model of evidence and excerpts, you should run the clauses you find objectionable.

    Either way, I still don’t agree with you – here is the actual Amazon page with the bios of ALL the judges: http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200183320

    You’ll see that Freeman’s NBCC presidency is just one part of his resume – as is Simonoff’s co-directorship of Janklow Nesbitt or Amy Einhorn’s heading of Einhorn books. I see nothing suggesting that Freeman’s role in this contest is an official NBCC act – it’s simply part of his bio. You will have to show me where Amazon is “invoking” the NBCC. Do you think that by leaving out the fact of his presidency from his bio, that would somehow make it more acceptable? Because that’s the only NBCC reference I can find.

    I think the Congressional comparison is also rather far-fetched – what, exactly, is Freeman getting out of this? You don’t think his status as perhaps the most prolific independent book critic working today would have put him on this panel, presidency or no?

    I see no ethical question, or even the suggestion of one. And I don’t think he needs to respond because I don’t think you’ve made a persuasive case yet. Others might see it differently, but that’s just me.

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