Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel among a dozen writers being taking to court to recoup advances for books that the publisher says didn't materialise
by: Alison Flood
Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel is one of 12 writers being sued by the publisher Penguin in a New York court for failing to deliver books they were signed up to write.
The Smoking Gun, the investigative American website that unveiled James Frey as a liar in 2006, has found that Penguin filed lawsuits against five authors who have not delivered books for which they were paid significant advances. As well as Wurtzel, the blogger Ana Marie Cox is being asked to return her $81,250 advance (and at least $50,000 in interest) for not writing a "humorous examination of the next generation of political activists", signed in 2006, and Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust survivor whose story of how he met his wife turned out to be a fabrication, is being chased for a $30,000 advance (and at least $10,000 in interest).
The Wurtzel lawsuit makes clear that the bestselling author signed a $100,000 deal in 2003 to write "a book for teenagers to help them cope with depression", of approximately 250 pages, by 2004. She received a $33,300 advance, with the rest of the money to follow on delivery and publication. But "despite repeated and frequent demand by Plaintiff … Defendant has refused or failed to repay the advance and remains indebted to Plaintiff in the amount of $33,000", writes Penguin in its lawsuit. The publisher has now taken to the courts to recoup the $33,000 from Wurtzel, "as well as interest of not less than $7,500". "[Wurtzel is] in possession of the sum of $33,000 that is the rightful property of Plaintiff," writes Penguin. "As a result, [she has] been unjustly enriched by [her] activities and Plaintiffs have suffered a detriment."
Other authors being sued by Penguin include New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead, from whom Penguin wants $20,000 and at least $2,000 in interest for failing to deliver "a collection of the author's journalism", and "hip-hop minister" Conrad Tillard, who signed a deal to write about his "epic journey from the Ivy League to the Nation of Islam". Penguin is suing Tillard for around $38,000.
Penguin is also suing seven other authors, as revealed by Edward Champion and confirmed in the New York Supreme Court's records library, including Bob Morris for a $20,000 advance and interest of not less than $4,000, for not handing in "a narrative about fishing lures and their history
A spokesperson for Penguin said: "Penguin regrets that it had to initiate litigation in these cases, and it did so reluctantly, only after its repeated attempts at amicable resolutions were ignored."
But the outcome of the case will depend on what, if anything, the authors did deliver, and major American literary agent Robert Gottlieb called the legal action "wrong-headed".
"Authors beware. Books are rejected for reasons other than editorially, and publishers then want their money back," he wrote in a comment posted on the Smoking Gun. "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."
• This article has been amended to add a link to Edward Champion's Reluctant Habits website