Harper Collins takes a moral stance!

24.02.02 - A story in today's paper tells of how Harper Collins tried to pulp Michael Moore's satire on Bush rather than release it. The author held out, and the book now tops the US bestseller lists.

It brings back my own experience with Harper Collins in 1998. Setting the scene: it's publication day of my book In Search of the Divine Mother, my launch reading and party primed for the Lenox Hill Bookstore on Madison Avenue that night. Lunchtime was spent in the legal eyrie atop the Harper Collins building. Outside counsel joined general counsel to grill me (my partner James acting as my defence attorney, having supported me for weeks in an endless stream of legal argument to carry our case for publication even this far). The subject of my biography, Mother Meera, had a lawyer as her devotee. His name on the letterhead of Mother Meera's first attempt to stop publication terrified Harper Collins, since he had already spearheaded successful and costly legal action against them. I was told the Clintons had wanted to appoint him to their legal defence team, but he was too expensive. The strength of my case did not matter - the cost of defending a court action in the US was so horrendous that the publishers would do all they could to prevent going to court. My book was to be withdrawn from sale.

God bless Lenox Hill Bookstore. We went ahead with that evening's reading - my books locked away in the back room, myself reading from my manuscript so the event did not constitute publication. Two representatives from Harper Collins had rung that afternoon to decline their party invitation but the bookstore was full, the reading emotional. People lined up afterwards to sign up for a copy should the book ever be released.

I phoned Harper Collins from Denver Airport the next day. My editor was as shocked with the news he had to tell me as myself. Some secret representative from the company had attended my reading after all. He had reported back to the company's new president, Jane Freedman, and she had decided to resist the bullying and take what she called 'a moral stance'. So long as my book survived a further intense legal scrutiny it would be published. Hooray.

Of course, that was not the end of the story. No word of my book needed changing, though the cover was sent back for a reprint and all books recalled to be rejacketed. I went away to Peru (for the book that would eventually become I Was Carlos Castaneda), came back, and nothing had happened. Publication had become curiously stuck. I phoned Harper Collins general counsel, was told he was not in the office, so left a voicemail message. I mentioned how disappointed I was that publication had gotten stuck, how journalist friends kept telling me that I was sitting on a great news story I should unleash, that in the light of the ongoing fracas with Chris Patten over his own book on Hong Kong I was beginning to see my journalist friends were right. My phone rang inside ten minutes, Harper Collins' general counsel on the line, an in-house lawyer brought in to stand on the carpet in his office to take any blame. Nothing must stop my book, he assured me. Any problems at all, I had a direct line through to his office.

Part of the subsequent publication deal was that the whole story of the legal dispute and the delay should not be used for publicity at all. Since the original views were all spiked when the book was first withdrawn, this naturally led to little publicity. The book was remaindered inside six months (is this a record?).

In publishing terms I can see that this really did count as a 'moral stance'. Just as the last line in today's report, a quote from Lisa Herling, Harper Collins' director of corporate communications, puts a corporate publishing gloss on the world 'enthusiasm'. Michael Moore fought so hard to get his book published that clearly he became a bigger problem than any that publication might bring in its wake. 'Ultimately,' gushes Ms Moore, 'it was decided we