Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Dooce Is Back, Part II

This is the second half of the post "Dooce Is Back."

Charming and self-absorbed people make me uneasy. While I'll be the first to admit it's fascinating to watch their often thoughtless and impulsive behavior, it's also excruciatingly painful. There's a very thin line between self-absorbed and spoiled. Between self-absorbed and selfish. Between self-absorbed and destructive.

Having said all that, it's difficult not to like a woman capable of writing a post like the following from Dooce.com on September 30, 2004:

This morning during a quiet moment of feeding Leta a bottle Jon turned to me and said, “Thank you, Heather, for giving me this wonderful creature,” after which Leta immediately let out a stuttering fart that sounded like a machine gun going off in our house. And for the first time in almost eight months Leta finally resembled her mother.

As I mentioned yesterday, Dooce.com now boasts between 800,000 and 1,000,000 hits per month and provides a "comfortable enough middle class to upper-middle class income," according to Jon in a recent Salt Lake Tribune article. This brings us to Heather's latest brush with fame.

Court documents filed on June 19, 2006, by the attorney for Kensington Publishing claim: "In recent years, books authored by well-known bloggers have become quite popular and have sold well. Kensington has been active in publishing books by bloggers. For example, it has published books by popular bloggers 'Maddox' and Tucker Max which books have been on the New York Times Bestseller List . . . In an effort to expand its publication of popular blogger books, Kensington approached Armstrong about publishing a book that she would write. In or around late November, 2005, Armstrong agreed to a two-book deal with Kensington (the 'Oral Agreement')."

The court filings go on to indicate that Kensington forwarded a written contract to Armstrong's literary agent on December 14, 2005, "memorializing the terms to which Armstrong had agreed." An intriguing note follows this comment in the court documents: "In the ensuing months, Kensington and Armstrong's two (emphasis in the documents) representatives, began active negotiations of the terms to be included in the written agreement." No explanation of the emphasized two representatives is given, although later in the documents, Kensington is asked to send signature copies of the revised agreement to Betsy Lerner of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner.

Betsy Lerner is a well-known figure in New York literary circles. As an editor, she worked on Elizabeth Wurtzel's breakout memoir, Prozac Nation. In the acknowledgments for the book, Wurtzel says: "Without Betsy Lerner, this book quite simply would not have been possible . . . As far as I can tell, she is the best book editor on earth. She's also been a great friend, the big sister I never had, and Job's most likely successor in the patience department."

Betsy Lerner acted as the literary agent for the sale to Simon & Schuster of Wurtzel's sequel memoir about her addiction to Ritalin, More, Now, Again .

Betsy Lerner has also written her own memoir titled Food and Loathing in which she chronicled her battle with food addiction and the depression which led to her self-admission to a mental hospital for suicidal ideation.

Heather Armstrong has, of course, been very honest about her own battles with depression, including her self-admission to a psychiatric hospital in August, 2004, for a brief stay following the birth of her daughter, Leta. I suspect Heather found in Betsy a sympathetic audience.

At any rate, the court filings indicate that on April 26, 2006, the negotiations for Heather's contract with Kensington were completed. The unnamed other representative for Armstrong requested that Kensington send copies of the agreed-upon contract to Betsy Lerner at Dunow, Carlson & Lerner and "also please email a final clean copy to me for my file."

It appears from available sources that Heather expected Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, a senior editor at Kensington, to be her editor. Mediabistro.com had interviewed Ruby-Strauss in January, 2006. According to Galleycat, Jeremie "gave us the impression that she [Armstrong] would be writing a book for Kensington's Rebel Base Books line."

On May 17, 2006, the SlushPile.net again interviewed Ruby-Strauss. This time, the article began a sentence this way: "As he wrapped up his tenure at Kensington and prepares to start a new gig with Simon Spotlight Entertainment . . ."

Sometime between April 26 when the parties agreed on the final contract to be signed and May 21, 2006, the train went off the tracks. Kensington's attorney describes it this way in the filings: "Armstrong's representative called Kensington to inform it that Armstrong would not sign the Final Agreement. The stated reason for this was that the Kensington editor who had originally approached Armstrong (the "Former Editor") and who had convinced her to sign with Kensington had left Kensington's employ."

Over the next few days, there were a number of phone calls between Heather's representative and Kensington's general counsel. The representative indicated that Heather was upset over the amount of time the contract took to be finalized and over the fact that Kensington had not immediately informed her of "the Former Editor's departure."

Kensington first had the new assigned editor call Heather to soothe her bruised feelings and, later that same day, had two "senior executives" try again. Heather complained to them of the lack of contact from Kensington and claimed that this lack of contact was "nerve-wracking."

Kensington brought suit against Heather for breach of contract when the company decided that she was in conversation with another publisher with whom she planned to contract.

On October 12, 2006, after more than three months of silence, Heather had a long post on the subject at Dooce.com. This is the first part of that post:

At the beginning of July I was served court papers. The case is a matter of public record, and I’m sure anyone who wanted to do a little research could read every sordid detail, or at least the plaintiff’s one-sided account of the details, but I’m not going to get into any of the specifics here other than to say that I chose not to sign a contract and was sued because of that decision.

There hasn’t been a single moment in the last three and half months when I didn’t think we were going to lose our house trying to pay legal fees.

Settlement papers were filed earlier this week officially ending what has been the most traumatic, agonizing, demoralizing experience of my life. I have no faith in our legal system, one that guarantees victory only for the party who can afford to pay for it, one that would allow a large company to bully a private citizen because it knows that she has no money with which to defend herself. I am angry and bitter and feeling all sorts of unbecoming emotions. More than that, though, I am afraid that these people are watching everything I say here, ready to pounce on a single word, twist it, manipulate it, and then sue me again.

My first reaction upon reading Heather's post was to shake my head. She seems to have no understanding that a verbal agreement negotiated by your duly appointed legal representative is a binding agreement. Then it occurred to me. Why should she?

As near as I can tell from her blog, Heather's professional experience in the working world was limited to the period between her graduation from college in 1997 to her firing from her job in 2002. Five years as a graphic artist/web designer. While I can't state this with certainty, she appears to have tumbled into her career as an "author" in the same impulsive way she began blogging--and with similar consequences.

Am I blaming Heather? No. However, her story serves as a cautionary tale for all writers seeking publication. We MUST learn the rules of the industry, understand the expectations and recognize that there are consequences for not doing our homework.

I have some sympathy for Heather's position. I'd done a considerable amount of homework, but have still been amazed at the length of time things seem to take. However, despite Heather's assertions that she was bullied and "violated in the most disgusting way," she apparently did authorize two legal representatives to negotiate for her. Her contracts with them bind her to the oral contracts they negotiated--unless she has a valid reason to breach those negotiated contracts. Valid reasons do not include feeling stressed because things are taking too long, or because you were not immediately informed that an editor left your publisher's employment. That's when a lifelong habit of self-absorption can bite you on the ass.

The rumors are that Heather has agreed to edit an anthology for Kensington as part of her settlement. That hasn't yet been confirmed as far as I know.

Perhaps Miss Snark summed this case up best when she said: "Bottom line is Kensington is getting an anthology, [and] all of us are getting a wake up call that people who blog aren't always 'writers' who've spent any time learning how this industry works."


Emjay said...

I never heard of this Heather person, but, as an aside, I would like to follow you around some day and see how you get around to all the things you do.

I consider successfully negotiating a trip to Wal-Mart a big day.

An average day for you seems to be whipping out 7 or 8 chapters for one book while editing another; gardening; helping out a myriad of neighbors with a myriad of problems; taking in and taking care of stray creatures; writing a long, well-documented, daily blog; reading every other blog in the world plus every publishing-related article in the world; appearing on panels, participating in several on-line critique groups plus a writers group that meets in person twice a month....

hey, am I leaving anything out?

Frankly, I find you annoying! (only joking).

Anyway, there are people like Heather. They should be avoided like the plague. I worked with a woman like this. She could not stop at a gas station without it turning into an incident. Trouble followed her like vampires follow Charlaine Harris (reading that same book now by the way).

I turn away if I see an accident by the road and I would turn away from Heather. She doesn't sound that funny to me. Just my opinion though.

Maya said...

And occasionally, even her family fails to find her funny. On 9/27/01, she said:

"Late last week one of the more technically-inclined members of my family found my website, serendipitously enough just after I posted an anti-Mormon diatribe Friday afternoon. They are devastated, and I've come to understand, rightfully so . . . I want to publicly apologize to my family for shocking them and for hurting them. I should have shared with them who I really am, openly and unabashedly. I love them dearly and only meant to celebrate our idiosyncrasies as a family. Dooce.com, however, will continue to offer up the best in expletive-laden religious and social frustration. This is who I am, just now I will leave my family out of it."