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Will authors threaten legal action?

1 November 2004

As everyone in the British book trade knows, Penguin UK's disastrous move to a new warehouse using the latest software system has already cost the company dear in terms of lost sales. But, as authors receive their royalty statements for the six months when the problems were at their most acute, many appear to be unhappy with the reduced sales and earnings. Agent Felicity Bryan

Founded in 1988 by Felicity Bryan. Represents a wide variety of distinguished authors writing adult non-fiction, fiction and children's literature.

  • Fiction and general non-fiction with emphasis on history, biography, science and current affairs.
  • Fiction for children aged 8-14, and adult fiction and general non-fiction.
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Please write enclosing a synopsis and the first three or four chapters on loose A4 paper, one side only, with double or 1.5 line spacing. In the covering letter, specify about any previously published work and relevant details about yourself. Include a CV if your work is non fiction. Please include your email address and sufficient return postage if you would like your manuscript returned, otherwise a stamped addressed envelope for our response.

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Children's authors include Jenny Downham, Sally Gardner, Julie Hearn, Liz Kessler, Katherine Langrish, Graham Marks, Meg Rosoff, Lauren St John, Matthew Skelton, Eleanor Updale, Jeanne Willis.

Founded 1988

says; 'taking into account obvious variables, our January to June DK (Dorling Kindersley) backlist royalties are at least a third down on the same period last year.'

This week Mark le Fanu, Secretary of the Society of Authors, and Chairman Anthony Beevor have a meeting at Penguin to discuss the situation. In the meantime the Society has written to 50 of its members who are Penguin authors, asking them to work out what damage has been done to their sales and whether they think Penguin 'should be pressed by the Society and agents to compensate authors'.

Such a move is unprecedented. It would be extremely difficult to assess exactly how many sales have been lost by Penguin's inability to get books out of their new warehouse. New titles were given priority and at one point were being supplied through a special despatch area in a marquee erected outside the warehouse. It's the backlist which has been suffering most, as bookshops have been unable to get regular stock orders through the warehouse. Anthony Forbes-Watson, Penguin UK CEO, points out that its sales were down only 6% on the previous year in the four weeks ending 23 October, but acknowledges that the figures conflict with booksellers' experience, which suggest the situation has been much worse. 'The anecdotal evidence is all of books coming in late and incorrect; there is over seven months of cumulative frustration.'

All concerned are moving into uncharted waters here. It is not clear whether Penguin could reclaim damages from the company which supplied the allegedly faulty software. No-one knows how you would begin to assess the damage done to individual authors. But because Penguin are such strong backlist publishers their problems will have directly affected many authors - and there is a growing feeling that they should be compensated.