Though the publishers' British arm was insisting yesterday that no such drastic action was contemplated here, the very notion gave some literary agents and writers apoplexy. Missed deadlines have been long regarded as par for the course.
David Godwin, agent for writers including Ben Okri and current bestseller Arundhati Roy, said what had happened in America was "extraordinary, shocking, ridiculous".
"Nearly all authors are late. Probably 10 per cent are on time, but most are late for all kinds of perfectly obvious reasons," he said. "It would be catastrophic to have that kind of rule of thumb. It's just an excuse - they are just trying to get rid of most of their books."
Certainly the company in America has been having a tough time. It posted losses of around pounds 4.3m for the last quarter of the financial year.
In Britain, it has, like many publishers, been cutting back its lists of new titles in recent years from a peak of 600-700 to 500 now. However, it still points proudly to a list of authors from Jeffrey Archer to JG Ballard and Jung Chang.
Giles Gordon, agent for Fay Weldon and Peter Ackroyd, said publishers were perfectly entitled to cancel books if authors did not adhere to a delivery date.
Most did not, but "times are tough" in the industry at present. If a publisher paid an advance and the book was delivered a year late, the outlay was outstanding for another year as well. "The author says it doesn't matter, but often it does," Mr Gordon said.
Yet producing a book is difficult. Mr Gordon represents one author who needs lawyers' letters before he can get his books in.
And Barry Unsworth, the Booker Prize-winning author, was "invariably late" because he took "infinite trouble" in his writing, Mr Gordon said.
"He thinks he will be able to write a book in two years and it takes three or four. His publishers have always waited." Yet Peter Ackroyd and Fay Weldon both produced prolifically and punctually.
"Peter Ackroyd manuscripts pile up like aircraft over Heathrow. He delivers a book about every nine months and is never late," Mr Gordon said.
Another agent, Lisa Eveleigh, said most publishers did not mind as long as they were told. "I've never had a contract cancelled for late delivery. I would imagine all these authors are extremely surprised," she said.
Many publishers were streamlining their books, aiming to do fewer better, she said. "It's probably a healthy thing for the industry at the end of the day. But some careers will end because of this."
Mark Le Fanu, of the Society of Authors, said he had heard of no company cutting a swathe through its lists like the American division of HarperCollins.
"Books do get cancelled and it's very frustrating and difficult for authors," he said. But traditionally the publisher-author relationship was considered "crucial" and publishers tried not to upset it.
"Things have changed a lot though. There used to be great talk about loyalty. But the whole state of publishing is in such flex that publishers are no longer loyal to authors so authors move about more than they did."
Alice Thomas Ellis, the novelist, said she was good at deadlines when she was writing journalism. Books were a different matter.
"I had to run like hell with A Welsh Childhood. I was idling along and then the deadline started to loom," she said.
About 18 months ago, she agreed to write a new book that was due this November. She has written a page and a half and has to go to Mexico for some research. It will be late.
Tony Lacey, publishing director of Penguin, said his company had some contracts that went back as much as seven or eight years. Some authors were notorious for their tardiness.
Academic publishing was less concerned about deadlines because the advances were small therefore there was less money outstanding. Deadlines were more of an issue with big advances. "Throwing the money out there into a hole is a bit alarming."
Better late than never? Four authors in the slow lane
SIR EDWARD HEATH
Has toyed with the idea of memoirs since leaving office in 1975. He signed a contract with Weidenfeld in 1985, but no book has been forthcoming. This year signed a new contract with Hodder Headline.
She admitted that probably her time of greatest anxiety was when she was writing her book about Chequers. "I felt very pressured by deadlines passing."
The author of The Hitch- hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is notorious for needing bullying to produce. His editor, Sue Freestone, moves in to his home to oversee writing when deadlines loom.
Earlier this year, she announced she was suing her publishers for alleged breach of a pounds 750,000 contract. She said she had agreed two postponements for her new novel, but made the final deadline. They thought she was four days late.Reuse content