Publishers, parties, and court: Julian Assange faces the music

What could be the WikiLeaks founder's last days of freedom are turning out to be distinctly colourful

Julian Assange is having a hectic time. Next week, he is due in the high court for two days, for the next round of his battle to avoid being extradited to Sweden. This week, he turned 40, and at the weekend he is planning a birthday bash with an A-list of celebrities on the guest list, including Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Anna Wintour and Eliott Spitzer – though whether any of the above named will turn up is quite another matter. Assange is not the easiest or most reliable man to deal with, as a small Scottish publishing firm is learning to its cost. They face a looming financial disaster because of the mercurial behaviour of the man who has become the public face of WikiLeaks.

Mr Assange accepted an advance of nearly £1m from publishers, including the Edinburgh based publishers, Canongate, for his ghostwritten memoirs. But now they are written, he has had second thoughts about them. He reportedly fears the content could be used by the US government to support the case for extraditing him across the Atlantic.

This has left the publishers with a severe headache as they wonder how to recover the money they paid out. Their problems are compounded by the fact that the advance was put into escrow, which means that Mr Assange's lawyers have first claim on it. He has run up vast legal fees in a battle to avoid being sent for trial on sexual assault charges in Sweden. The next phase in that battle will be fought out in the high court next week.

Mr Assange, who is now living in the home of the journalist Vaughan Smith at Ellingham Hall, a 10-bedroom property in rural Norfolk, never wanted to write his memoirs, or have someone else write them for him, but agreed to the deal because the money was good and he was in severe financial straits. Interviewed by The Sunday Times in December, he revealed that the publishing was worth more than £850,000, of which $800,000 – or just over £500,000 – was being advanced by the New York firm Alfred A Knopf, an imprint of Random House, with another £350,000 coming from Canongate. He added: "I don't want to write this book, but I have to. I have already spent £200,000 for legal costs and I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat."

To add to an already complex picture, last month Mr Assange parted company with his solicitor, the media lawyer Mark Stephens, who had been representing him in his extradition battle, and replaced him with the civil rights lawyer Gareth Pierce.

It is believed that there is a book, ghost-written by the Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan and based on interviews with Mr Assange, but he is not willing to put his name to it.

Canongate may now be hoping either to get Mr Assange to change his mind, or to persuade Mr O'Hagan to write an account of the six months he has spent working on it, which they hope would retrieve at least part of their investment. The firm's managing director, Jamie Byng, was not available for comment yesterday.

An Australian by birth, Mr Assange shot to worldwide fame after a series of sensational leaks of classified US documents, including about 250,000 State Department cables, were published by Wikileaks. Last August, he made a 10 day visit to Sweden. While he was there, two women complained to the police about his alleged sexual conduct. His immediate reaction was to blame "dirty tricks" by the US government.

That allegation was repeated by his legal team during February's extradition hearing. Before it was held, his barrister, Geoffrey Robinson QC, released legal papers claiming that Mr Assange was the victim of "illegal and corrupt" behaviour and a "secret process" by Swedish prosecutors. The papers added that there was a "real risk" if the Swedes handed him over to the US authorities he could be sent to the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, or executed. But a district judge said there was no evidence to support the allegation that the charges were political, and added that he did not accept that Mr Assange would not get a fair trial in Sweden. It is expected that his new legal team will take a less confrontational approach in next week's hearing.

Since rising to fame, Mr Assange has shown an aptitude for falling out with people. The German spokesman for Wikileaks, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, resigned last September after he had unsuccessfully tried to persuade Mr Assnage to stay out of the public eye while the allegations of sexual assault were hanging over him. Mr Assange owed much of his success to a partnership with Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who was also a prime mover in exposing the News of the World phone hacking scandal. But in December, Mr Davies ran a carefully researched account of how the sexual assault charges had come about, which offended Mr Assange, who broke off relations with The Guardian and took his complaints to The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Mr Assange's second thoughts about his memoirs could be a serious blow to a firm which has enjoyed an exceptional run of succession the past decade. The Canongate imprint was on the verge of extinction in 1994 when the company that owned it, Albany Books announced that they could not sustain its losses any longer. It was rescued by Jamie Byng, an Edinburgh University graduate then in his mid 20s, who had originally joined the firm as an unpaid volunteer. He used the financial clout of his step-father, Sir Christopher Bland, the future chairman of the BBC, to organise a buy out. Canongate had a major success in 2001 with Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which won the Booker Prize, and sold a million copies within a year.

Life of Pi is a fantasy involving a shipwreck – an appropriate metaphor for the shipwreck threatning the firm who signed a deal with a man who seems to deal in fantasy, as when he drew up the guest list for his birthday bash.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'