Write or wrong, proof may be danger to fiction

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THE NEW YORK publishing community has died and gone to Court TV heaven. At any rate, it might as well be dead for all the work that got done last week; from one end of Manhattan to the other, editors, proof- readers and literary agents sat gaping at Channel 51.

The object of fascination is the slugfest now playing in New York's downtown courthouse - broadcast gavel to gavel by Court TV - between Random House, America's biggest and most powerful publishing firm, and Joan Collins, the British actress who, we all now know, also has a sideline in writing.

"I'm telling you, for the publishing world this, not OJ Simpson, is the trial of the century," explained Stuart Applebaum, an executive at Bantam Books. "It's a lot more exciting than the fiction manuscripts most of us have on our desks right now. It is the only topic of conversation".

It is not just that the lead role is played by the pouting Ms Collins, 62, to a script that might have been written for Alexis Colby, her character in the 1980s soap opera, Dynasty. More gripping, especially for the industry, are the unanswered questions about the case. Above all: how did Random House get itself into such a public mess? And what will the consequences be if it loses?

It was Random House that initiated the courtroom collision with a suit against Ms Collins, demanding that she pay back a $1.2m (pounds 780,000) advance for two novels that she agreed to write in 1990. The publisher alleges that the manuscripts that she said she submitted in 1991 and 1992 were incomplete and, not to mince words, drivel.

Disputes between publishers and authors over contracts and whether they have been satisfied are not unusual. But they are almost always settled, one way or another, and very rarely end up before a judge.

"I think they could have tried to have settled this out of court by appealing to a mediator," Leonard Mark, a New York civil lawsuit expert suggested. "This has been wonderful for television and the media but it has not been good for either of the parties. For one thing, it is going to cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees".

Random House's pursuit of Ms Collins is all the more perplexing given the kind of contract involved. Negotiated by her superagent, the late Irving "Swifty" Lazar, it excluded the normal publisher's "acceptability clause". It said, in essence, that if two "complete" manuscripts were delivered by Ms Collins she would get the balance of the money owed her, regardless of whether they were published. The full value of the contract was $4m.

While its lawyers argue in court that even the requirement for "complete" manuscripts was not met, Random House is presumably vowing never to enter into such a contract again. Even its rivals are praying that Random wins the case, which is expected to go to the jury on Tuesday.

"We all have too root for Random House," Mr Applebaum conceded. "If Ms Collins wins, it will have consequences for all of us. All of the contracts already out there might begin to unravel."