Anyone with a jones for scandal and/or Schadenfreude -which is to say, most of us in the publishing business-has just been delivered of the motherlode. Or, actually, the nannylode, since it was just last week that Random House canceled the second novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the authors of the phenomenally best-selling The Nanny Diaries . As news began filtering out that the newly reconfigured little Random had canceled the reported-to-be $3 million contract, phones all over town started to ring. “Random House wants its money back,” people said. “The book is a disaster!”
It may come as a shock to those who work in more normal businesses, but this kind of thing doesn’t happen every day. According to a long-time publicist at a major conglomerate, books that are grossly disliked and clearly “not ready” for publication are released every month, and in the rare event that a substandard book is canceled, the publisher often doesn’t bother to try to recoup whatever portion of the advance it has already paid-unless the author is subsequently successful in placing it elsewhere. (For the record, an “advance” usually means that the author gets one-third or so of the stated promised fee up front, another one-third or so upon delivery and the last portion on publication.) Before the days of six- (or, in this case, seven-) figure advances, after all, it would seem unlikely that a publisher could squeeze a poor fiction writer for the, say, $20K advance he’d been living on for the previous six months.
But the Nannies-as everyone calls Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Kraus-are different: After a very modest $25K advance, they earned well over a million from their first book, which was published by St. Martin’s, and this second book was a high-profile, high-priced buy. What’s more, it was purchased by the old regime at Random House-Ann Godoff, who was soon fired and is now the head of Penguin Press-for a price that seemed particularly outrageous, given that the 18-page proposal was “all over the place,” as its kinder readers put it. The less generous might have called it “barely written in English.”
But what accounts for the extraordinary amount of glee that publishing watchers are feeling at the Nannies’ demise is not so much the deal itself-a deal that may or may not have been worth $3 million after all. (One source who has been close to the two authors said that the original agreement was for multiple books, one of which was supposed to be a sequel to The Nanny Diaries ; when the authors balked at being pigeonholed into writing a sequel, they refused to sign, this person said, and a new deal, sans sequel, was struck.) Rather, the authors have committed the unforgivable sin of making themselves unlikable in both the book and the journalistic worlds. Difficult and demanding authors even in the realm of the difficult and demanding, they had three agents in as many years (Christy Fletcher, who sold The Nanny Diaries to St. Martin’s; Molly Friedrich, who took them on soon after; and William Morris literary department co-head Suzanne Gluck, who made this Random House sale); they demanded perks more suited to movie stars than novelists (professional hair and makeup for all public appearances, for example); and they turned down many high-profile “branding” opportunities-including offers to write for Esquire and the New York Times Op-Ed page-because they didn’t like the “direction” the editors were trying to take their ideas. In short, they had become the authors from hell.
At the beginning, executives at Random House chose to ignore the warning signs, even suggesting that the girls had simply been misunderstood and mishandled by their previous publisher. But when the first draft of the new manuscript arrived at the house last fall, several executives said, they knew they were in trouble. Opinions and book doctors were sought, both from within and without the house. And even before the cancellation became official, according to one publishing executive, Ms. Gluck had begun to shop Citizen Girl to other publishing houses, including at least one Random House sibling.
But apparently the authors, who declined to comment, either refused or were unable to make the drastic changes Random House required, and after much discussion between the book’s nominal editor, Lee Boudreaux, and her bosses, Dan Menaker and Gina Centrello, the deal was undone. Not only could the “new” Random House unload what was likely to be a bomb of a book, but in one fell swoop, executives could also differentiate themselves from the old regime: Ann Godoff might have taken these chances, they seemed to be saying, but the new Random House is going to be more cautious.
And that, ironically, is an attitude that has won the house praise instead of criticism from its competitors. Instead of bashing Random House or enjoying their misfortune, even rivals are seeing the Nanny Debacle as an indication that there is justice in the publishing world after all. “The book should not have been bought-at least not for that price,” as one competitive publisher puts it. “And now, it hasn’t been.” The authors themselves, however, are on the receiving end of no such generosity; having made one fortune and having tried to make another by chronicling disaffected and vindictive employees, the Nannies now find themselves unemployed. And given the arrogance they’ve displayed in the past, many can’t help but feel they’ve gotten what they deserve.
But this being publishing, of course, there’s already a backlash. “People were practically dancing on the tables around here when they heard the news,” said one publishing executive who has dealt with the authors. “But I like the girls. The first book was great. It’s just that they were so young, they got carried away. Now, all this is making me feel sorry for them.”
The executive’s house-like the others-has no plans to bid for Citizen Girl , however. At least not yet.