Roses Are Red, Publishers Without Contracts Are Blue

If you like to read for pleasure, you probably have a passing interest in the announcement every year of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The prize giving is somewhat politicized, but it is indubitably global, and over the years many of us who enjoy reading have been introduced to new writers and poets. This year the winner was American poet Louise Glück, one of America’s most celebrated poets, for writing “that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

Glück has served as the United States’ poet laureate, and she has won a Pulitzer Prize, but at the end of the day she’s a poet, so her books don’t sell millions of copies. But since the announcement of the Nobel award her work has been at the center of a tempest in a publishing industry teacup, after her literary agent selected a new publisher for Spanish language translations.

Glück had been published for 14 years by a company called Pre-Textos, which had let the Spanish rights to Glück’s work expire, but now maintains it should be rewarded for broadening her readership and publishing her work at a loss for years. Manuel Borrás, the literary director of Pre-Textos, acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times that he had little ground for a lawsuit against the agent, Andrew Wylie, but said, “We want some kind of justice for 14 years of loyalty to an author who was almost completely unknown . . . there is also something called ethics.”

Well, good luck with that.

It’s clear (and Borrás acknowledges) Pre-Textos has no legal grounds for complaint; it is only trying its case in the court of public opinion (in fairness, a good strategy, because most people understand the law only slightly more than they understand financial data).

According to Andrew Wylie, Pre-Textos failed to renew the rights to Glück’s work after its initial contract expired in 2015, and it did not pay the agreed-upon advance for the signing of a second contract. In addition, Pre-Textos ignored messages from the agency over several years, then published Glück’s books “Meadowlands” in 2017 and “A Village Life” in 2020 without consulting her, despite having promised to do so.

Why are you reading about this dispute here? Well, because we frequently write about the importance of contracts (especially international contracts), but even more frequently write about people who are confused or upset that they’re not getting what they want despite not having written a contract, or having written an inadequate contract, or best of all, having signed a contract written by a counter-party in a language they can’t read.