Pay-back time for publishers: authors forced to return their advances

This week, it emerged that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith was being sued by his publisher to return his advance. From Julian Assange to Amy Schumer, he isn’t alone...

Though he’s fallen out spectacularly with his publisher, Seth Grahame-Smith at least has the consolation of joining a stellar club of writers whose deals for much-anticipated books were terminated. It emerged this week that Grahame-Smith, the man behind Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is being sued in the United States for breach of contract by Hachette, which wants half his $1m advance for a two-book deal returned. Hachette claims the second book’s typescript was eventually submitted “34 months” late, and was too short and substandard, “in large part an appropriation of a 120-year-old public domain work” (unnamed, but presumably 1897’s Dracula).

Among Grahame-Smith’s new confrères are the 12 non-fiction authors including Elizabeth Wurtzel sued four years ago by Penguin USA, which sought to recoup the advances plus interest for books it said they had failed to deliver; Withnail And I writer-director Bruce Robinson, whose missed deadlines during his 15-year quest to identify Jack the Ripper meant his original publisher cancelled his contract and asked for its advance back (although he found a new one and They All Love Jack appeared in 2015); and the award-winning novelist and poet Vikram Seth, who was at loggerheads with Penguin after it lost patience with his writer’s block while gestating the sequel to his vast Indian love story, 1993’s A Suitable Boy.

Julian Assange belongs to this club too, but only as a rogue fringe member as both he and his publisher handled the crisis unusually when tensions arose. The WikiLeaks founder (who had inconveniently come to believe “all memoir is prostitution”) sought to cancel his contract with Canongate for a memoir after reading a draft produced by his ghost-writer Andrew O’Hagan based on extensive interviews. His £500,000 advance, however, had reportedly already been spent on legal fees; and, instead of axing the deal, Canongate secretly went ahead and published it in 2011 as The Unauthorised Autobiography, leading Assange to disown it and denounce them.

Vikram Seth’s sequel to A Suitable Boy, published in 1993, should be out in 2017 or 2018.
Vikram Seth’s sequel to A Suitable Boy, published in 1993, should be out in 2017 or 2018. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

When celebrities and publishers agree to divorce, in contrast, the parting of the ways tends, in public at least, to be friction-free, minimising loss of face on both sides. Either on the star’s initiative or by mutual agreement, Robert Downey Jr (grounds unknown), Ian McKellen (“it was a bit painful, I didn’t want to go back into my life”) and Billy Joel (realised, three years after signing a $3m deal to talk about his past, that he was “not all that interested in talking about the past”) have handed back all or part of seven-figure advances. Mick Jagger and his former wife Jerry Hall have pulled out of memoir deals almost 30 years apart on broadly similar grounds: the Stones frontman has said he gave back a hefty advance in the 80s because the publisher wanted the book to “divulge all these secrets” and “it was so depressing and boring having to scrape over your past”; Hall returned hers when HarperCollins was disappointed by the lack of revelations (especially about Jagger) in what she submitted.

Publicly aired grievances appear even rarer when it comes to politicians’ efforts, with publishers reluctant to deter future grandees (whether by cancellations or letting it be known that anodyne offerings are unacceptable). Hodder, for example, limited itself to stating in July that Boris Johnson’s Shakespeare book, due in November, “will not be published for the foreseeable future” - reports suggested the new foreign secretary agreed to return a £500,000 advance in the same week as giving up his £275,000-a-year newspaper column - though one imagines this was spoken through gritted teeth, the book McKellen pulled out of having been with the same publisher.

While the best that such authors can usually hope for is to minimise grief, there have been some winners. Joan Collins was victorious in a high-profile, televised courtroom battle in 1996 when Random House sought the return of a $1.2m advance for two novels that were delivered but deemed unpublishable (she kept it and was awarded a further $1m, since her contract only required “completed” works, not the usual “satisfactory”). With her career on the rise and the market in comedians’ memoirs booming, Amy Schumer terminated a $1m contract with HarperCollins in 2014, returning the advance with interest; this enabled her 18 months later (“I thought I would make more money if I waited”, she has said) to sign a deal with Gallery Books estimated as between $8m and $10m for her The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, published last week.

As for Seth, he may be able to have his cake and eat it, by resurrecting his book deal but also enjoying revenge. His sequel A Suitable Girl is expected in 2017 or 2018 from Orion, where he moved after repaying part of his advance, but another project in the works, partly a memoir, will voice his grouses about Penguin. It will be called Guano!, he revealed last year, a word for birdshit that in this case specifically means penguin poo.


John Dugdale

The GuardianTramp

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