Harper and a Row

The dust-up at News Corp.’s books division and how the house’s past could rise again

harper collins building Harper and a RowLast week, New York’s most notorious literary agent, Andrew Wylie, almost certainly by design—and certainly not for the first time—caused a fuss. Being interviewed on a BBC Radio 4 news show on July 18, Mr. Wylie invited a comparison that nobody had yet bothered to make, likely because it seemed ludicrous to compare the mundane habits and petty grievances of book publishing to the machinations of an amoral Fleet Street tabloid whose editors were being arrested one by one. But Mr. Wylie waded in.

When asked if the News of the World phone hacking scandal might bleed into other parts of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, including its publishing wing, HarperCollins, he answered bluntly, “Yes, it will focus attention on all parts of the business, and people will perhaps turn on some lights in rooms that have been left dark previously and look more closely at what is profitable and what is not and what is proper behavior and what isn’t.”

He went on to hint that proper behavior was not always to be expected from HarperCollins: “They have been, and I’ve explained this to the heads of the company in London and New York, unusually shrill and punitive towards authors.”

Having issued his proclamation over the airwaves, Mr. Wylie resumed his usual, oraclelike silence, refusing to refer to specific instances of said shrillness or punishment (or to answer any questions from The Observer) and leaving New York publishing to venture any number of conjectures. A few days later, as if to confuse everyone further, Mr. Wylie issued a correction of sorts, telling the British industry publication The Bookseller that he “did not ‘call for an investigation’ into HarperCollins.” He went on: “In the context of current events, this misrepresentation of what I said is regrettable.” A spokeswoman from HarperCollins characterized this as “a retraction.”

At HarperCollins, at least, the prevailing mood was one of annoyance. “Mr. Wylie makes extravagant allegations to the BBC but fails to specify exactly what he is complaining about,” the company’s British spokesperson wrote in a statement republished in The Bookseller. The American spokeswoman offered only a “no comment.” Aside from a few high-profile moves—most notably Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, authors of the  mega-bestselling book Game Change, defecting to competitor Penguin Press for their follow-up­—Mr. Wylie has continued to do business with the company, prompting his commentary to be referred to as everything from an instance of “the pot calling the kettle black” to a “fishing expedition.” Among HarperCollins editors, there was an aggrieved feeling that he was “piling on” while unrelated businesses owned by News Corp. were down.

This is not to say that others in New York publishing were unwilling to take the opportunity to air grievances. “They’ve become draconian in their cancellation policies towards authors for manuscripts delivered even a week beyond their delivery date,” said one New York literary agent. (Unlike Mr. Wylie, none of the agents interviewed were so bold as to give their names and face future alienation from dealmaking with the formidable publisher.)

Other agents said that while such cancellations can feel unnecessarily, well, punitive, they are a publisher’s contractual right. But the company also recently redid its standard contract (known as a “boilerplate”) in a manner that several agents told The Observer was not “author-friendly.”

“They have changed their asking for a broader scope of rights than they have before,” wrote one agent in an email to The Observer. “Like multimedia rights; or not allowing authors to make a graphic novel of their own novel even if HC has already turned down that idea.”

“First, and most importantly, the rights grab is insulting,” wrote another agent. “I mean, HarperCollins will essentially be able to hold the book (and ALL THE RIGHTS that go with it) hostage for eternity.”

“We don’t comment on contractual issues,” said a HarperCollins spokeswoman.

Others were quick to point out how Mr. Murdoch’s tactics in The News of the World scandal recalled those of HarperCollins scandals past—­the payments to people whose phones had been hacked evoked comparisons to Mr. Murdoch’s attempted payments to Nicole Brown’s family in the face of controversy about O.J. Simpson’s memoir, If I Did It. (The Browns declined payments and went on The Today Show; HarperCollins was shamed into canceling the book.) The exertion of corporate influence in the hacking scandal recalled the allegations by Judith Regan, publisher of an eponymous HarperCollins imprint who was fired in 2006, that Fox News executive Roger Ailes asked her to lie to federal officials when her once-lover, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, was being vetted for the Secretary of Homeland Security post (allegations that The New York Times verified earlier this year through court documents.) News Corp. paid Regan a $10.75 million settlement in the case.

Whether the recent News Corp. indiscretions will reignite interest in possible wrongdoing on this side of the Atlantic is unclear. Former federal prosecutor and Columbia law professor Daniel Richman suspected it may not, but added, “who knows what happens in this current feeding frenzy….It would be nice to think that all knowing lies made to those agents would be prosecuted.”

One small dose of justice was meted out this week to Mr. Murdoch, however. Back in 1998, Mr. Murdoch earned derision in Britain for canceling a memoir by Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, and was accused of doing so to protect his business interests in China. According to The Guardian, the editor of that book, Stuart Proffitt, has acquired an account of the hacking crisis for Penguin Press.

ewitt@observer.com