It had been a while since I’d been able to blog and I wanted a topic that would get back on writerly advice. This morning, I was intending to blog a bit about the beauty of research. It’s something I was reminded of when I penned for Tor.com a response to WIRED on the history of podcasting fiction. So “Research” was to be my topic du jour until I saw in my feed this morning the story of author Seth Grahame-Smith and his current battle with New York publishing house, Hachette. The Guardian reported that the author inspiring a string of mash-up novels (his being Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which led Quirk Books to publish other works such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina) is being sued by Hachette for delivering a manuscript that claims is an appropriation of a public-domain work.
Just let that kick around in your brain for a minute: A New York publisher is suing a guy who took a Jane Austen classic, threw in a few set pieces from The Walking Dead, re-packaged it for a zombie-hungry market, and made a metric fuck-ton of money off of it, for writing a book that was a knock-off of a public domain work…like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Safe to say, there is a lot of blame to be thrown around here. First, there’s Hachette and Grand Central Publishing ponying up four million dollars for Grahame-Smith’s next two books. Granted, Grand Central was probably seeing dollar signs as their first collaboration with Grahame-Smith was in 2010 with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, another historical-monster-mash-up hit. He had two more books to deliver, and The Last American Vampire, the sequel to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, arrived in January 2015.
That left one more book to write.
You can read the full complaint at Publishers Marketplace, but in a nutshell Grand Central and Hachette were not happy at all with the manuscript that Grahame-Smith eventually produced and are evoking the “breach of contract” clause. Reading this lawsuit paints a victory for Hachette, especially when Hachette makes it very clear when they wanted the second manuscript delivered. There’s a great breakdown of the contract here, and the points Kristine Kathryn Rusch makes are some to really consider. Also, this contract was an agent-negotiated contract, and provided little to no protection for Grahame-Smith if the deal went south.
So, you got Grand Central and Hachette setting up a contract that was far from perfect, especially for the writer. You have an agent that is working (supposedly) for the writer, but agreeing to terms any agent worth their cut shouldn’t be. Finally, you have a lot of money on the table. A. Lot. Of money.
This could easily have been a story of a writer who got caught up in a roller coaster of success. At the time of signing the contract, Grahame-Smith was a hot property. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a blockbuster, launched a series of mash-up novels, and this was followed-up by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. So yeah, he was on a rollercoaster of success.
What people forget about rollercoasters is they have dips.
From the complaint, Page 3 Item 17…
At the request of [Grahame-Smith], Hachette twice extended the delivery date for Book #2 from the original contractual date of June 3, 2013, first to October 1, 2014, and then from October 1, 2014, to April 1, 2016, totaling in all an extension of 34 months beyond the original delivery date.
This is where any and all sympathy I would have for the writer is chucked out of the window.
Avoiding the details at the behind-the-scenes look at my wife of infinite awesome, Pip Ballantine, and myself, we asked for a two-week extension on a deadline as we were running behind on the work’s edits. Two weeks. Just fourteen days to make sure that the manuscript was ship-shape and Bristol fashion. Not only did we not get it, we got our knuckles rapped by the publisher for acting unprofessional. With that, we delivered the manuscript on time, but not without a few sacrifices made in the process.
Grahame-Smith was granted two extensions from Hachette, totaling up to 34 months, and he still couldn’t deliver.
It’s not like Grahame-Smith was new to writing, having written several books before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and writing two screenplays (one of them, the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter script) in 2012. Considering the amount of money he was making off this Hachette deal, Grahame-Smith possessed more than enough resources and time to produce two new novels. (Pip and I have produced five in that time, alongside podcasts and an anthology.) An extension usually means something unexpected has come up in an author’s life, and in most cases can easily be negotiated between author, agent, and publisher, without a problem. Repeat extensions? Unless there are some serious personal struggles happening off-stage, a continuous rest of a delivery date is a red flag signaling an author shirking their obligations. Especially when the advance is one as big as four million.
There would be another treacherous dip in Grahame-Smith’s rollercoaster of success. That dip was when people tried to make movies out of his books, one of which he served as screenwriter and Executive Producer…and neither of these adaptations were blockbusters.
This is a perfect storm of bad calls. Hachette’s massive advance for a flavor-of-the-month. The agent, not doing what agents are supposed to do which is to represent the author, not themselves. And finally, Grahame-Smith himself, not really taking his contract that seriously. It sucks, but do I think the author is a victim here?
But other writers will become so. And that is what scares me the most.