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Author Bill Bryson Takes Agent to Court

7 December 2012

From Courthouse News Service:

Bestselling author Bill Bryson sued his agent, claiming he “failed to perform some of the most fundamental duties of an agent,” including forwarding royalties, and “stonewalled inquiries from publishers and his own client … undermining Bryson’s livelihood and reputation.”

     Bryson, 60, has written a string of bestsellers, including “A Walk in the Woods,” “Down Under,” and “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” He lives in England.

He sued Jed Mattes Inc. in New York County Supreme Court.

. . . .

“This action arises from Fred Morris’s misconduct and profound neglect of his duties as the literary agent of author Bill Bryson,” the complaint states. “For a period of years, Morris, acting as JMI, failed to perform some of the most fundamental duties of an agent. He failed to remit royalties he received for Bryson; he failed to forward draft contracts he received for Bryson to review and sign; and he stonewalled inquiries from publishers and from his own client, denying them basic information. Morris hid his failures and misconduct while they were undermining Bryson’s livelihood and reputation. When Bryson began to uncover the derelictions, Morris cut off contact with him.

     “Despite having abandoned his responsibilities as Bryson’s literary agent, and despite Bryson’s revocation of the agency, Morris has insisted, through attorneys he engaged, that JMI is entitled to continue collecting a commission of fifteen percent of Bryson’s earnings on the very works Morris has neglected.

“In addition, Morris has refused to honor Bryson’s repeated requests for an independent accounting. Instead, Morris purported to perform an accounting of his own, which was incomplete, riddled with errors and patently unreliable.

Link to the rest at Courthouse News Service and thanks to Kris and several others for the tip.

Agents, Legal Stuff

11 Comments to “Author Bill Bryson Takes Agent to Court”

  1. Bravo, Bill Bryson! This agent’s behavoir is outrageous, and it’s way overdue that writers start suing agents and publishers for terrible treatment!

    You go, Bill!

  2. P.G.

    There are some first class bums in the world. Even when he’s got a golden goose right there for him, he’s got the cheek to spoil his own party.



  3. This makes me so glad I’ve decided to be a self-publisher. I’m my own agent.

    I’m sure there are good, honest agents out there. But there are also a lot of agents like Fred Morris. So my question is, can you really trust your agent? Probably not.

    • LJ, I am also my own agent–in a career which is focused on licensing books to publishers (about 35 over the course of 20+ years).

      The myth that one needs an agent to write for publishers is just that–a myth. Like whether-or-not to self-publish, whether-or-not to have an agent is a choice, regardless of the market a writer targets or works in.

      And the behavior of Bryson’s agent is a very good example of WHY I don’t work with agents (though I had four different ones at various points in my career); far, far too many agents behave exactly like what Bryson’s describing. When I passed along this link to friends, the first comment I got was from another writers whose longtime career is focused on licensing books to publishers; like me, she no longer works with agents; like me, the reasons are because, upon seeing this article, she said, “I’ve had every one of those problems with agents.” These problems among agents are depressingly common and widespread.

  4. We all know Bill Bryson isn’t the first writer to find himself in this situation, but he’s got the money and the international clout to do something about it and to bring it to the world’s attention. Bravo, Bill! I knew I liked that guy.

    I’m guessing a lot of agents are feeling the sweat pop out on their foreheads about now….

  5. Bill is one of my favorite authors and I had the privilege of meeting him in Harvard, several years ago. To see this this good man being treated in this manner is sad. Like others have said, he has the means and clout to do something about it – in a large scale.

    I can only hope he decides to go the self-publishing route.

    • I can only hope he doesn’t decide to settle out of court. I want a ruling.

      • Mercy, me, too! The stuff described in Bryson’s lawsuit is shockingly common and widespread among literary agents. I would LOVE to see a court issue a ruling on these behaviors.

      • I suspect he’s already decided not to settle. Surely the agent has already offered him the usual money-for-non-disclosure-agreement deal. Since it got this far, I suspect there will be no NDA in this case.

    • Werner, please see my comment above to LJ. Conflating working wiht publishers as necessarily working with agents is a common error–and a very understandable one, all things considered–but it is indeed erroneous. I have only used an agent for about 7 of my book sales, somewhere in the middle of my writing career, and quit working with agents altogether 6 years ago (precisely because the problems described in Bryson’s lawsuit are so common and widespread among agents).

  6. Good. Agents have operated too long without a proper checks and balances system in place. There *are* good, honest agents out there, but the way the literary agencies are set up right now–where anyone can be an agent–there are going to also be bad agents. There needs to be a better system for lit agent accountability. Hopefully, this is the first step in that direction.

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