Penguin Sues Elizabeth Wurtzel, Ana Marie Cox, and Other Authors Who Can’t Deliver Books

On Tuesday, The Smoking Gun reported that Penguin Group (USA), Inc. had filed a number of lawsuits against several authors for failing to write their books in a timely manner. In short, Penguin wants the authors to pony up the dough for manuscripts they didn’t deliver. In response to this, as Galleycat’s Jason Boog was quick to observe, Trident Media Group chairman Robert Gottlieb offered a tough, no nonsense statement at The Smoking Gun insinuating repercussions if any of his authors were crossed:

Authors beware. Books are rejected for reasons other than editorially and publishers then 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.

On Wednesday morning, Reluctant Habits learned that Penguin had filed a total of twelve lawsuits in the past week with the New York State Supreme Court. The full list of author defendants and damages sought is listed below:

1. Ana Marie Cox: An $81,250 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $50,000,” for “a humorous examination of the next generation of political activists.

2. Bob Morris: A $20,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $4,000,” for “a narrative about fishing lures and their history. The Work will examine early creators of fishing lures, the rise of Bass Pro Shops, cutting edge research behind the development of high-tech lures, and the science of why fish go for some lures and not others.”

3. Carol Guber: A $35,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $10,000,” for a two-book deal involving “a guide to managing Type II diabetes for women” and “a cookbook for diabetes with approximately 125 recipes.”

4. Reverend Conrad Tillard: Tillard received a $31,833 advance for a memoir “tracing his epic journey from the Ivy League to the Nation of Islam, his eventual fall-out with Louis Farrakhan, his crisis of faith, and the epiphany (at Harvard’s Divinity School) that brought him back to the religion of his youth.” Tillard paid back $5,000 of this advance after Penguin terminated his agreement. Now Penguin seeks the remaining $26,833, “plus interest of not less than $9,500.”

5. Deborah Branscum: A $10,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $2,000,” for Stuffola, which “traces our national journey from impoverished colony to Pack Rat Nation.”

6. Elizabeth Wurtzel: A $33,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $7,500,” for “a book for teenagers to help them cope with depression.”

7. Herman Rosenblat: A $30,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $10,000,” for “the amazing story of a Holocaust victim who survived a concentration camp because of a young girl who snuck him food. 17 years later the two met on a blind date and have been together ever since, married for 50 years.” (As Snopes observed on February 21, 2011, this story was revealed to be false. Thanks to Alex Heard for reminding us about this.)

8. Jamal Bryant: A $56,250 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $13,500,” for “a second book from the dynamic pastor of the Empowerment Temple, which inspires men and women to be empowered through faith in God.”

9. John Dizard: A $40,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $18,000,” for Gold Now, “an analytical forecast arguing the future success of gold investments and prophesying the decline of the American and European national currencies.”

10. Lucy Danielle Siegle: A $35,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $7,000,” for To Die For, “a reporter’s eye view [sic] of the environmental and human rights toll of the fashion business, and a look at the real story behind the clothes we wear, by Observer columnist Lucy Siegle.” (9/27 UPDATE: As Michael Orthofer observed on Twitter, To Die For was published in the UK.)

11. Marguerite Kelly: A $25,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $5,000,” for a “comprehensive guide” to “behavioral problems — their symptoms and cures.”

12. Rebecca Mead: A $20,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $2,000,” for “a collection of the author’s journalism.”

It remains unknown whether Penguin filed these lawsuits as an insurance measure against recent legal setbacks. A few weeks ago, after HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette agreed to settle in the Department of Justice’s collusion suit, Penguin vowed to fight with Apple and Macmillan. Penguin is also facing an age discrimination suit filed by former veteran employee Marilyn Ducksworth, who left, along with other employees, under mysterious circumstances. (It’s worth pointing out that Gottlieb has also been outspoken in his support for Ducksworth.)

Of course, when anyone fights a two-front war, it can’t be done without resources. Should Penguin prove victorious in its legal battles against these authors, the grand total to be earned is well over half a million dollars. Assuming that most of the authors opt to settle, this would still land Penguin a fairly comfortable sum.

The twelve lawsuits continue Penguin’s ongoing efforts to tap revenue through “outside the box” thinking. Penguin’s August purchase of Author Solutions, which Smashwords’s Mark Coker has identified as “one of the companies that put the ‘V’ in vanity,” suggests that Penguin’s new business strategy involves squeezing authors. The biggest surprise is that Penguin has extended this tactic to established authors.

It remains unknown whether Penguin will continue to file more lawsuits, but, in recent months, the company has proved more aggressive in its pursuit of lost monies. As Publishers Lunch’s Sarah Weinman reported on September 20, Penguin filed a lawsuit seeking $22,000 and interest from MacAdam/Cage over the ebook rights to Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Representatives from Penguin did not wish to speak with us on the record.


  1. Of course, the fact that Bob’s agents would have to return their 15% has nothing to do with his silly threat. And is he really defending authors who refuse to fulfill their contractually agreed upon assignments, or who defrauded the publisher?

  2. I seriously need to bank where Penguin do. Interest rate on a current account in Bonnie Scotland is now a minuscule 0.5%. If they were a loan company they’d be shut down with interest rates like those,

  3. I don’t blame Penguin. Seriously, to land such a contract, with such a nice advance, and NOT write the book? That’s just ethically wrong. Good for Penguin, regardless of why they need to recoup their funds.

  4. Amazing. Perhaps Penguin realised that a $20K advance for a book about fishing lures was a bit over the top, and might not hook as many sales as first thought. Or $35k for two books about diabetes was more than mere icing on the cake.

    If the writers can’t write such books in the time they said, then they should return the money. Good luck to Penguin: next time find writers who deliver on promises. If you want two books about diabetes written, I’ll do it for half the advance…keep the massive royalties.

    IMHO, an agent will say he’s going to fight this because of the money he has to return, and the fact that his job is going down the pan over the next five years with the rise of self publishing et al.

  5. I’m confused. I thought “advances” were paid out in stages; e.g., one third at signing, one third on submission of first draft and one third upon publication, or something like that. If this is so, then were the deals worth three times the claimed advances? Or did the authors go all the way–thus collecting the full advance–only to have the book killed just shy of publication?

    I think it’s prejudicial to assume Penguin’s claims are all legit cases of writers failing to fulfill their end of the bargain. I suspect some–if not most–of the cases involve irreconcilable differences over key editorial issues or factors beyond the writers’ control.

    Penguin should also keep in mind the PR implications of suing so many authors. (Not to mention the greediness implied in the usurious interest charges.) Is Penguin really that unlucky to have twelve authors fail to deliver the goods? Or are they litigious bullies who will too-easily kill projects and sue authors anytime things don’t go their way?

    I know if I was fortunate enough to sign a deal with a major publisher, I would be extra cautious about contract terms and any advance if I was dealing with Penguin.

  6. It’s not clear to me from this story whether the authors never delivered a book, or how long after the delivery date set forth in the contract a book went undelivered. If they never delivered a manuscript, or failed to get a written extension from the editor, or never submitted revisions recommended by the editor in a timely fashion, then I suppose they are in breach of contract. Some of those being sued are professional writers with a track record, so they shouldn’t have a problem completing a book. Others may not be professional writers and might have benefitted from a collaborative writer. However, if the publisher is just canceling contracts to get books off their list they no longer believe in (no offense, but fishing lures?), or because the acquiring editor has moved on, and the authors have shown good faith in delivering material – that’s another story.

  7. If you sign a contract to build something, create something, write something, paint something and you meet with the person who is buying your work, go over plans for your work, take an advance for your work and DO NOT DELIVER according to deadline. You should give the money back. Otherwise a crooked contrator, or fraudulent Ebay huckster should just hire a book AGENT and ask for special treatment when the cops come to lock them up for fraud.

  8. Authors should fulfill contractual obligations. But how much teeth is in the Penguin fight? Unless the author is a big celebrity, good luck in collecting the money. Poorer authors will hide behind bankruptcy. It might be cheaper in the long run for Penguin to write it off taxes as bad debt. Any law scholars out there?

  9. Having just read the British version of Lucy Seigel’s book “To Die For”, I don’t understand how this author could be sued for not supplying a manuscript on time when all that US publishers do is take the manuscript of the UK published book and “Americanise” the language and do some minor editing? Also, I would have thought that the cost of hiring the lawyers and proceeding to litigation would be almost as much as they think they are going to get out of these authors if Penguin wins their cases. Typical publishing company wasting time and money again.

  10. This will only cause distrust between writers and publishing houses inciting more writers to self-publish and many publishing houses to close. The industry is changing, advances in technology are removing the middle-man.

  11. This is blatant but not news. A few years ago I saw the Disney-Hyperion hiercy shift — the new guard cleaned house by firing staff and canceling their books, even as they rolled to press. Even books with paperback sub rights sold. Still, they audaciously tried to pin the blame on several writers for failure to deliver and tried to recoup their advances. Agents and lawyers had to battle to prove their claims false and won, many months later, but Im not so sure authors without representation fared so well. I’m also sure this is a fairly standard phishing procedure.

  12. While I know nothing of the circumstances of the other writers on this list. Penguin is wholly within its rights for asking me to pay back this money. I signed a contract. I didn’t, for a variety of reasons, deliver. And I fully intend to settle with them in an honorable fashion.

  13. […] distressed industry asking themselves, ‘Where can additional revenue come from?’” And at the Reluctant Habits blog, where you can find the details of each suit Penguin is pursuing. (Spoiler Alert: One of the […]

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