The Author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Did He Rip Off a Classic In A Subsequent Manuscript?

Zombified Hachette Complaint Caption

On August 26th, Hachette Book Group sued Seth Grahame-Smith, known for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, for breach of a publishing contract for two new books, a sequel to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and another book “on a subject to be determined by [Grahame-Smith & his company, Baby Gorilla, Inc.] with Publisher’s written approval.” He received an initial installment of half-a-million for each book in a four-million-dollar deal.

Apparently, Grahame-Smith delivered on the first book, The Last American Vampire, which Hachette published in January 2015. The manuscript for the second book, however, is a different story, at least according to Hachette.

In its bare-bones complaint, available here via Publisher’s Marketplace (PDF), Hachette alleges that the manuscript Grahame-Smith delivered (after a lengthy extension on the deadline):

  1.    Is not original to Smith, but instead is in large part an appropriation of a 120-year-old public-domain work;
  2.    Materially varies from the 80,000-100,000 word limit fixed in the Agreement;
  3.    Is on a subject that was never approved by Hachette in writing, as required by Paragraph 1(b) of the Agreement; and
  4.    Is not comparable in style and quality to Smith’s wholly original bestseller Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, as also required by Paragraph 1(b) of the Agreement.

Basically, the manuscript Grahame-Smith delivered was allegedly unsatisfactory because, according to Hachette, it “varied so materially and substantially from that described in the Agreement.” As a result, they want the $500,000 advance back.

I’m dying to know what public domain work Grahame-Smith allegedly ripped-off. In Covering the Classics: An Homage or a Rip-off?, I expressed ambivalence about the merits of adaptations of classics, explaining:

Part of the writing process is building a story from scratch, scene by scene, and it feels like cheating when a writer simply borrows a blueprint for a story that someone else developed 150 years ago.

To be sure, literary references are part of the creative process, and even Shakespeare borrowed plots from the earlier works of others. But should unoriginal derivatives be billed as stand-alone novels when there is little novel about them?

Needless to say, I’ve changed my tune since writing Amelia Elkins Elkins, a courtroom drama retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but that doesn’t mean I’d be okay with an adaptation that adds little to the original work. That’s essentially what Hachette alleges Grahame-Smith did.

We’ll see whether a jury, if it comes to that, agrees with Hachette. I wonder whether the lawyers will check out potential jurors’ Goodreads profiles before empaneling them.

15 thoughts on “The Author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Did He Rip Off a Classic In A Subsequent Manuscript?

  1. This is interesting, I’m looking forward to finding out how this turns out.

    It’s put me in mind of something someone said to me once, verbatim I wouldn’t want to have one of my early books be a best seller, it would be terrifying, what if i couldn’t do it again! I wonder if that’s what happened here?

    1. I’m so curious to know how it will turn out. Generally speaking, courts have given publishers a lot of leeway to reject “unsatisfactory” manuscripts, as long as the publisher acted in good faith (this isn’t my area of law). The contract in the case is attached to the complaint. I’d love to read the manuscript Grahame-Smith submitted.

  2. I literally just finished Abe Lincoln Vampire Slayer when this story hit! I did not care for it and found many problems with the book, so I don’t think I will be pursuing any more of his books. But wow, sounds like some shady stuff going on.

    1. I wonder what happened to make Grahame-Smith delay for so long only to submit an allegedly unsatisfactory manuscript. I’d love to read it. There’s nothing like a controversy to increase interest in a work, right?

  3. I can’t quite understand what the problem is. Is it the plagiarism or is it the fact that its so different that they’re mad about. Either way, it sounds like a breach of contract that they’re going to win.

    Also 500,000 dollar advance?! I couldn’t even dream of that much of an advance!

    1. Yeah, it’s a breach of contract case. If the manuscript is an appropriation of a public domain work, that’s not what Hachette paid for. We’ll see what happens.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    1. Yeah, some authors definitely do well! It’s a large advance, but I guess it makes sense when it’s a large publisher and an established author. I don’t know.

      1. It doesn’t happen all that much anymore, and advances that large are rare indeed. James Patterson, for instance, probably gets big advances, but he’s a machine, and so are the authors he pays to write his stories. 😉

    1. I wonder what happened here and whether it’ll actually go to trial. It’s hard to come to a conclusion without reading the allegedly “unsatisfactory” manuscript, but under most contracts, publishers typically have a lot of leeway when it comes to rejecting a manuscript (as long as they act in “good faith”). I’m also surprised by the advance, but then again, I don’t know what’s typical for an author who has already had bestsellers.

      Thanks for stopping by!

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s