Who paid Lord Archer pounds 32m? Not us, say his publishers

A pounds 32m book deal that was to have made Jeffrey Archer the world's highest-paid author was last night shrouded in as much mystery as one of his own best-selling novels.

HarperCollins executives in London now insist that no such deal was struck. The only contract they have with Lord Archer, they say, was signed last year. It is still in place and it is for pounds 14m.

The strange story began in last week's Sunday Times, which quoted "a source close to the deal" as saying that it was for three books and included television movie and serial rights. "It is the first book that is the key," the "source" said. "The publishers loved it. It is the subject that they have paid for."

The story was widely followed up by other newspapers, which congratulated the former Tory party deputy chairman on leapfrogging such giants as Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Barbara Taylor Bradford in the earnings league. Lord Archer was quoted as describing the first novel, due for publication next May or June, as "the best idea of my life". By Friday, however, questions were being raised about the extent - and even existence - of the new contract.

Last October's deal, for three books, was negotiated by Eddie Bell, HarperCollins's executive chairman. "I have definitely not renegotiated a new contract with Jeffrey," Mr Bell told the Bookseller magazine on Friday. "The story seems a product of the silly season."

Stuart Proffitt, Lord Archer's senior editor and publisher of HarperCollins's trade division, took a similar view. "I don't know where the story started," he said. "We made an agreement with Jeffrey last autumn for three books, including all the rights. Nothing has changed. I am not quite sure who started this hare but everyone picked it up and started chasing it."

So why did HarperCollins fail to scotch the rumour earlier in the week? "The report was not stamped upon earlier because it was the end of the holiday season and people were away," Mr Proffitt said.

Lord Archer was not away. Why didn't he scotch it? "I haven't discussed the deal with anyone and I'm not going to start with you," Lord Archer said.

Yet, according to one source, Lord Archer said last Sunday that his last book deal "had effectively been made redundant". He is also said to have told friends that a Hollywood film studio had made an offer of between pounds 2m and pounds 3m for rights to the book on the basis of a leaked one- page synopsis and parts of two chapters.

On Friday, however, Lord Archer denied he had said any such thing. Asked about the film deal, Mr Proffitt said: "There isn't one as far as I know."

One HarperCollins insider said directors in London tried desperately to find out the truth behind the rumours. "They were in a blind panic all week until Eddie Bell set the record straight," he said. Another source said: "The directors were trying to find out what was going on. They wondered whether George Craig, the top man in New York, had made a deal."

Had he? Mr Craig was ill last week and could not be contacted, but one of his assistants said: "As far as we are concerned, Jeffrey Archer is the property of the London office. We wouldn't get involved over there."

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