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When Your Publisher Rips You Off

Updated on March 20, 2011

This is a true story. The names have been changed to protect... well... I'll let you guess who.

Harry was very happy when he finished his latest manuscript. He was sure that he had hit the proper tone square in the head and since the subject matter was extremely topical, this was a surefire bestseller. Now all he had to do was convince other people of that.

He almost bankrupted himself at the local Post Office. It seems Literary Agents don't have printers of their own and it would hurt their teeny weeny eyes to actually read something on a computer monitor, so they couldn't possibly (gasp) accept a book proposal submission over a medium as universal and accessible as email. Oh no, they had to have it snailmail. And not only that, they also required the evil SASE, the Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope so that once they received the submission their secretaries could just open the envelope, take the contents, put them into the SASE and send them back from whence they came unread, untouched, and not even leafed through. You could have stuffed a $20 bill in the middle of the pages of the proposal, and you could be assured that when you opened the SASE, the money would still be there right where you left it.

Sometimes You Just Have To Take That Extra Step...

Finally, maybe because his stars had finally lined up, or because there is a statistical chance of almost anything happening, an agent named Samuel finally must have read the submission as he contacted Harry and informed him that he would be happy to take 15% of his royalties plus expenses.

Harry celebrated that night. Since he lived alone and didn't drink, the celebration amounted to watching Survivor in the nude while quaffing strawberry milkshakes. Harry was a little weird in the head, but then again, aren't most writers?

After four months of "accumulating expenses", Samuel contacted Harry to tell him that he had located a "boutique publisher" willing to take on the book. Harry almost fell off his chair, not by that news but by the amount of the offered advance. It was enough to take himself out to dinner at least twice, if he didn't go anywhere expensive.

Regardless, a deal is a deal is a deal, so Harry agreed and soon enough two copies of a contract thicker than the Manhattan phone book and with much smaller type arrived with a thunk on his front door. He tried to read it, but after three days of trying to decipher "the party of the third parts" he just gave up, signed it and mailed one copy back. He wondered why SASEs was not included in these cases.

The timing of the publishing of Harry's book was fortuitous indeed as the publisher was present with a large booth at one of the world's foremost Book Expos that same month and Harry's book attracted all sorts of attention from foreign publishers. With the exquisite salesmanship which consists of standing at a booth while buyers come up to you and wave checks in your face, the publisher signed deals with well over a dozen international publishers to issue translated versions of Harry's books.

Harry was elated by the news of his international sales which he read in the trades. It seems neither his agent nor his publisher ever told him much about anything. He was so happy that he went strolling by the real estate agents' storefronts and checked out the photos of the really nice houses, the ones with the three-car garages, Georgian columns and manicured lawns.

Since then Harry would google his own name every day to see what new cover his book carried in some weird language or another. Pretty soon, Harry was an international bestselling author. He had to read that in the trades too, since he hadn't spoken to anyone at the publishing company since the day he turned in his final draft.

On the first anniversary of the publishing of the book, he contacted his agent Samuel and politely asked him when he could expect the first royalty payment. He hadn't read the phone book cum contract, but he figured that 12 months was enough time to at least get the first little chunk of change from all the various and sundry publishers all over the world who had placed his work on their countries' bestselling lists. The agent replied that they should have received a report and a check by then and promised to get right on it. Harry knew he would give it his immediate attention. After all, Samuel's 15% commission was in that check.

Two months later, Samuel contacted Harry to inform him that he had just spoken to the publisher who had told him that she had been sick, had a family emergency, got a flat tire, had her purse stolen and the dog ate her homework, therefore many heartfelt apologies and the report and the check would be received by courier next week.

Two months after that, Harry contacted Samuel again, asking if there was any money anywhere. Samuel told him that he had been chasing the publisher for the past two months, but she wasn't returning his calls.

Another month passed and Harry began to wonder whether the publisher would ever return Samuel's calls. Although this should be the agent's responsibility, Harry called a lawyer and had "strongly worded legal letters" sent to the publisher demanding payment.

Two more months passed and it became obvious that the "strongly worded legal letters" had gone to line the publisher's kitty litter box. Harry decided that he had to take the case into his own hands. Since he lived a continent away from the publisher, and had been paying his rent on "expectation of immediate income" for a year and a half, a round-trip flight was out of the question. So he got a cheap long-distance calling card and dialed the publisher. He called three or four times a day leaving messages and of course his phone never rang. One morning Harry got up on the wrong side of the bed and when he called the publisher he told the secretary to tell the publisher that he was on his way to the office with a CBS 60 Minutes news crew which was covering a story about deadbeat publishers who rip off their writers. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, so once again, his phone didn't ring.

Using his long distance phone card, Harry started faxing pages that simply said PAY ME in huge letters and his contact information at the bottom. At first he sent one or two. Then he started sending 40 a day. Guess what? His phone didn't ring.

Then Harry found on the internet a service that would deliver voicemail messages for a small fee. Harry managed to pay the small fee and set up the service to automatically redial the publisher's main number every 10 seconds from 9 am to 5 pm and deliver his voice message which, creatively, was Harry screaming PAY ME. The small fee was soon exhausted and his phone still hadn't rung.

By this time, Harry was getting quite concerned that the pipeline with his money in it had been diverted to some other terminus. He figured that he needed to "take it up a notch... BAM!"

Harry scoured the internet and got a list of the emails for a couple of thousand literary agents. He then found an ISP that wouldn't cut him off for spamming and sent each literary agent a short summary of how this particular "boutique publisher" had ripped him off and asked if any of their clients were in the same predicament.

Well, it seems Harry finally struck a nerve. The very next morning his email inbox was filled with agents recounting even worse stories with the same publisher, including one client who had not received a penny in five years. Some of these agents had sent emails to the publisher threatening to join Harry's legal action against her if they didn't get their money right now.

Among all the emails was also one from the publisher. This was the very first time in his life that he had received a direct contact from her. The publisher said she had been sick, had a family emergency, got a flat tire, had her purse stolen and the dog ate her homework, therefore many heartfelt apologies and the report and the check would be received by courier next week, but she had to insist that he turn over his email list and have no further contact with those agents.

Harry replied that he had heard that she had been sick, had a family emergency, got a flat tire, blah, blah, blah, more than five months earlier and he was still waiting for his money. Harry told her that not only did he have no intention of turning over anything and terminating contact with anyone until he saw his royalties but there was another major international Book Fair coming up in a couple of weeks, and he promised that the publisher's booth would be the talk of the Fair, but not exactly in a complimentary context. Harry said that he would do absolutely everything within his power and the law to publicly embarrass the publisher until she coughed up the cash.

The publisher was apoplectic. How dare he dispute that she had been sick, had a family emergency, got a flat tire, blah, blah, blah. She would no longer have any contact with him as he was clearly a psychopath, and would only deal with his agent. Harry replied that she could contact anyone she wanted to but if by 9 am of the first day of the Book Fair he hadn't received a check the resultant "activities" would make the front pages of the trades, and maybe even the daily newspapers.

Harry heard nothing more from anyone for almost two weeks. In the late afternoon of the Friday before the Monday of the Fair, Samuel the agent contacted Harry. Samuel told him that a bicycle courier had just delivered an envelope from the publisher across town. The envelope contained a report and his check. Of course, Samuel was taking his commission and expenses out first, but the amount that was left for Harry was truly jaw-dropping.

Fifteen hundred dollars.

The publisher had met his terms. She had given him a report and a check. The report basically stated that the publisher hadn't received any money yet from the foreign publishers and that domestic sales were "disappointing." Harry glanced up from his desk to the framed clipping from a trade journal that reported on how his book had already gone into domestic second printing and was in third printing in some countries.

But a deal was a deal was a deal. Harry had received a check and he had to call off the scheduled "activities" at the Book Fair. Yes, it was a complete humilation and perhaps not even one penny on the dollar of what he was owed, but the letter if not the spirit of the agreement had been honored.

Samuel said there was more good news. The publisher had informed him that the next payment that was due in four months would be right on time. Unless of course, she got sick, had a family emergency, got a flat tire...


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