For lovers of Dynasty-style camp, the high-heeled boots that Joan Collins wore to court last month held center stage. But Random House’s unsuccessful suit to reclaim her $1.3 million advance — for a novel the publisher had promised to accept whether or not it was any good — was more than just trashy fun: It was an example of the hardball practices characteristic of Random House, the world’s largest English-language publisher.
Many industry insiders blame the doomed decision to sue on Alberto Vitale, 62, the company’s aggressive chairman and CEO since 1990. ”The idea of an author walking away with $1.3 million would have made him furious,” says a rival publisher. As one former Random House executive says, Vitale ”quarrels with everybody.” Among his recent battles:
Vitale, who would not comment for this story, is feuding with several literary agents, including the powerful William Morris Agency, which represents such authors as Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz, because the publisher insists on purchasing all electronic rights to its books. The dispute has cost Knopf, a Random House division, best-selling author Julia Child’s latest book.
In January, when the American Booksellers Association brought an antitrust suit against Random House, charging it with illegally providing discounts to chain bookstores, Vitale struck back. He pulled the house out of the upcoming ABA convention, the book trade’s premier showcase for new titles. Nevertheless, Phyllis Grann, chairman and CEO of Putnam, predicts, ”I don’t think it will impact their sales.”
According to two Random House ex-employees, Vitale — dismayed about losses at the Villard and Times Books imprints during the last two years — ordered staffers to get out of a number of contracts. Those deals involved mid-list authors, with advances ranging from $50,000 to $150,000, whose signings Vitale regarded as mistakes; he was ultimately unsuccessful.
Since the splashy Collins trial put Vitale under an unfavorable spotlight, observers have been trying to decide how much damage Random House did to itself. ”It was one of the single worst PR moves that any publisher has made in years,” says a competing publishing exec. ”It wasn’t as though they thought they were buying Proust.” Jack Romanos, head of the Simon & Schuster Consumer Group, notes wryly, ”They wanted [Collins] in the worst way, and that’s exactly how they got her.”
It may not be the money that was lost in the Collins decision, which Random House may well appeal, that proves to be the most humiliating aftereffect. Since the publisher was forced to reveal the quality-be-damned language in her contract, ”all celebrities are now going to want the Joan Collins Clause,” predicts Steven Schragis, head of Carol Publishing. Even Random House, he says, may have to give in: ”If Tom Hanks came along and said, ‘I’d like that same contract,’ do you think they’d say no?”