Bankruptcy, Book Deals, Books, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Lawsuit of the Day, Litigatrix, Money

Lawsuit of the Day: Penguin v. Wurtzel (and Other Authors)

Say what? One of Above the Law’s favorite subjects, celebrity lawyer and author Elizabeth Wurtzel, got attacked by a penguin?

Yes — in a manner of speaking. Penguin Group, the publishing mega-house, recently sued the bestselling and critically acclaimed authoress, seeking the return of her advance money. Other prominent authors have been sued as well.

How much does the publisher want back from La Wurtzel? What are her possible defenses? And who are some of the other high-profile defendants being pursued by the angry Penguin?

Here’s the scoop, from The Smoking Gun (via The Atlantic Wire):

A New York publisher this week filed lawsuits against several prominent writers who failed to deliver books for which they received hefty contractual advances, records show. The Penguin Group’s New York State Supreme Court breach of contract/unjust enrichment complaints include copies of book contracts signed by the respective defendants. The publisher is seeking repayments from:

* “Prozac Nation” author Elizabeth Wurtzel, who signed a $100,000 deal in 2003 to write “a book for teenagers to help them cope with depression.” Penguin wants Wurtzel, seen at right, to return her $33,000 advance (and at least $7500 in interest).

Wurtzel is the biggest name among lawyerly circles, but other high-profile writers have been targeted as well:

* Blogger Ana Marie Cox, who signed in 2006 to author a “humorous examination of the next generation of political activists,” is being dunned for her $81,250 advance (and at least $50,000 in interest). Her Penguin contract totaled $325,000.

Ana Marie Cox, of course, was the founding editor of Wonkette (where I blogged for a short time before launching Above the Law). I tweeted at Cox for comment, but I haven’t heard back from her yet.

* Rebecca Mead, a staff writer at The New Yorker, owes $20,000 (and at least $2000 in interest), according to Penguin, which struck a $50,000 deal in 2003 for “a collection of the author’s journalism.”

* Holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat was signed for $40,000 in 2008 to describe how he “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 50 years.” While Rosenblat’s story was hailed by Oprah Winfrey as the “single greatest love story” she had told on the air, it turned out to be a fabrication. Penguin wants him to repay a $30,000 advance (and at least $10,000 in interest).

It normally would be a bad idea to go after a Holocaust survivor, but Holocaust survivors who lie about the experience would seem to be fair game.

We contacted Wurtzel for comment on the Penguin lawsuit. Is she depressed about the prospect of litigation? Not at all; to the contrary, she’s fired up and ready to go. From her statement to Above the Law:

Pretty weird lawsuit. The statute of limitations on breach of contract expires after six years, and this book was due in, I think, 2004. I took care of this debt long ago, but I’m not sure what the custom is in these matters, which is to say that I don’t know how publishers handled money in unfinished projects through the years, but I am sure it was never through the legal system. I imagine it was the cost of doing business, but I am not an authority.

Oops — could Penguin be S.O.L., thanks to the S.O.L.? This is why you shouldn’t sue a Yale-trained litigatrix who used to work at Boies Schiller.

And that’s not Wurtzel’s only defense. Note her statement that she “took care of this debt long ago.” This strikes me as an oblique reference to her Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, in which she received a discharge on April 17, 2012. I’m not a bankruptcy lawyer, but as far as I know, debts to publishers are dischargeable in bankruptcy — and you don’t even need to show “undue hardship”.

(By the way, how a bestselling writer and former Boies Schiller associate wound up in Chapter 7 bankruptcy sounds like an interesting story to which we may someday return. We didn’t get the chance to go into all the details of that with Wurtzel today.)

More from Wurtzel’s statement:

My feeling is that these things happen all the time — it is built into their business model that certain projects will not be completed and many more that are actually published will fail and lose money. All the writers they are suing are “brand name,” so they have made a great deal of money over the years by claiming to be, say, the house publishing the Wonkette book or whatever. They have made use of signing up these people, and now they are making use of them in a lawsuit, as an example to all writers. They are saying that authors will be dealt with harshly, as if the life of most authors is not difficult enough. The vast majority of writers do not eke out a living at their craft, and do not need to be taught that the world does not value them, and will in fact be Goliath if the opportunity presents itself. This is truly disgusting. Shame on Penguin.

Similar sentiments are expressed in reader comments over at Techdirt and The Smoking Gun, where authors and literary agents have expressed anger over the Penguin lawsuits. If Penguin becomes known as the house that comes after you for your advance money, will writers want to deal with them?

Are these lawsuits even worth the trouble? Wurtzel doesn’t think so:

In general, large corporations don’t make a practice of suing individuals for what amounts to lunch money, because we are lousy defendants, and it is not worth the legal bills. Penguin owns the imprint that publishes the paperback of Prozac Nation (affiliate link), which is in close to its 50th printing, and was the first paperback published by Riverhead Press. I have earned Penguin much more money than I could conceivably owe them.

They have also, no doubt, signed many books over the years as the house that published Prozac Nation, so the intangible benefits they have garnered from their relationship with me are hard to measure, but I would be delighted to ask David Boies, who I work for, to come up with a number. That number would be very big. Who the f**k sues someone who works for David Boies? I cannot believe publishing is in so much trouble that it is suing its authors for what amounts to enough money to pay the people who work in legal affairs. We are not good defendants under ideal circumstances. Plainly they did not do any research before filing. I pity them.

Game on, Penguin. Wurtzel and Boies may send you back to Antarctica with your tail between your legs.

Book Publisher Goes To Court To Recoup Hefty Advances From Prominent Writers [The Smoking Gun]
Penguin Taking Underperforming Authors To Court To Recoup Paid Advances [Techdirt]
Book-publisher Penguin Group files lawsuits against authors who skipped deadlines [New York Post]
Morrissey’s Bookstore Heroics; Publishers Want Squandered Advances Back [The Atlantic Wire]

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