Saturday, 18 July 2009

Can't pay, won't pay

A sad story in Sweden's Dagens Nyheter about a Swedish literary agent who is alleged to have withheld years of royalty payments to international publishers and authors, and now has 500 contracts to back process. The authors involved have included well-known names like Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster, though apparently they have now been paid. It seems to be the first time that anything of this kind has happened in the Swedish publishing world, and no one is quite sure how to deal with it.


Eric Dickens said...

I've just read the article that David mentioned above. Sweden is, generally speaking, an honest country. So Swedes have become a trifle naïve when it comes to people who could be interpreted as acting like con men.

For Oates and Auster alone the man in the doghouse, Hanserik Tönnheim, has coughed up over £100,000. And he's now ploughing his way through some 500 contracts to see how things stand. He may owe more.

Like politicians often do when holding onto the buck rather than passing it, he is going to "accept full responsibility" for "delaying the payments" in the hope that he will be let off the hook for doing a little careless bookkeeping. Once he started going into the red in 2005, he should perhaps have pulled the plug on his agency. Instead, he "forgot" to make the payouts, presumably financing his costs with "borrowed" money.

In an article by Lasse Winkler in the trade magazine "Svensk Bokhandel" (equivalent to Britain's "The Bookseller") today you detect damage limitation at work within the Swedish book branch. It is suggested that the Americans (in this instance) were also lax, as they did not check on him either. And suggestions are also being made that it's the fault of something as diffuse as "the international system of literary agents" and "gentleman's agreements". As with the banks, you need proper, official and regular international monitoring of the transfer of the sums of royalty money. That's what regulators are for.

As for the Swedish Writers' Union, it does seem rather a weak argument to merely say that something like this has never happened before, so there is no provision for it and the structure of the book sector does not lend itself to fraud, so you can't guard against it. Well, there's always a first time.

Finally, it is rather amusing that the culprit in this affair happens to lecture on the subject of "book marketing skills" at Lund University. I would like to hear his lectures on creative bookkeeping...

David McDuff said...

The article by Lasse Winkler is here.

Incidentally, it looks as though SvB might want to give up writing their articles with Microsoft Word, or at least save them as filtered HTML...