Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Should Publishers Be Held Accountable for Libel?

People are going to write libelous manuscripts. When you take into account the naive, the first-time authors, the uninformed, and the outright illiterates who sometimes send off their manuscripts to POD/vanity publishers, the likelihood of something libelous getting into print increases. Does the publisher bear any responsibility? I believe they do. When dealing with "green" authors' work, which is probably the bulk of the material submitted to these kinds of presses, I think the publisher has an obligation to vet the manuscript thoroughly, exercise due diligence to demand the requisite releases when indicated, and otherwise make every effort to ensure that neither the author nor the publisher is going to subsequently get hit with a libel suit. If they fail to do so, then I firmly believe the publisher should be held jointly liable.

This has been posted all over the Internet, in innumerable forums, so I truly hope I'm not infringing upon anyone's copyright by repeating it here. It has to do with Author House's loss of a libel action filed against it.

AuthorHouse Ordered to Pay Up

by Claire Kirch

The Kansas district judge presiding over the defamation lawsuit brought by romance writer Rebecca Brandewyne against AuthorHouse ordered Friday that the POD subsidy publisher pay Brandewyne $200,000 in punitive damages. Brandewyne’s co-plaintiffs in the suit, her parents, also were awarded punitive damages of $20,000 each. This past May, a Wichita jury found AuthorHouse guilty of publishing a book, Paperback Poison, in November 2003 by Brandewyne’s ex-husband that libeled her. The jury awarded Brandewyne $230,000 in actual damages (PW Daily, May 16).

In his 14-page decision, Judge Jeff Goering asserted that AuthorHouse “acted towards the plaintiffs with wanton conduct,” in publishing Paperback Poison, despite the fact that Gary Brock, the book’s author, had informedAuthorHouse during contract negotiations that iUniverse had rejected the manuscript on the grounds of possible libelous content.

The judge acknowledged that, based on its business model of dealing in volume, AuthorHouse “cannot read every book cover to cover,” and that the company, to a certain extent, is entitled to hold authors responsible for the content of their work. But, Goering noted, “The misconduct in this case is AuthorHouse’s failure to act when it had information that would have placed a prudent publisher on notice that the content of Brock’s book was harmful to the plaintiffs.”

Bryan Smith, AuthorHouse president, said he was disappointment in Goering’s decision, stating that he does not believe that AuthorHouse’s actions “justified the verdict or the damages awarded.” AuthorHouse canceled the book a month after publication.

In determining the damage award, Goering rejected AuthorHouse’s argument that any award be capped by the company’s gross income in 2002, the year AuthorHouse was formed. While not revealing AuthorHouse’s sales, Goering noted that the company’s 2002 gross income was 3.5% of its gross income in 2004 and 2.8% of its gross income in 2005. AuthorHouse has 30 days to decide whether to appeal the award.

You might also be interested in seeing what my idol, Miss Snark, has to say about the Author House matter.


The Author House decision brings to mind a similar action currently pending against PublishAmerica. There's a lawsuit pending in the Circuit Court for the City of Baltimore (Maryland), filed back in 2004 against a PublishAmerica author and PublishAmerica. It hasn't yet been tried; the last time I checked the court site, I believe an October trial date was scheduled. As well as I can determine, it's a libel action with multiple plaintiffs.

Court System: Circuit Court of Baltimore City
Civil System Title: Clyde E. Bennett Sr., et al. vs. Jacqueline M. Schumacher
Case Number: 24C04008613
Case Status:Open/Active
Case Type: Other Tort
Filing Date: 11/29/2004

For a glimpse of the book at the center of this case, see:

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