Yesterday, OK! Magazine published an exclusive story that Amber Heard, fresh off of her court loss for defamation against Johnny Depp, has inked a “Multi-Million Dollar” deal to write a tell-all book about her relationship with Depp. In fairness to the article, this claim is limited to the headline — the actual text only states that she is in talks to write one.
Putting on my “owner of a small publishing company” and “author who has been published by large publishing houses (I have been published by Pocket Books and Osborne/McGraw-Hill)” hats, this all seems very unlikely. In fact, I would go as far as to say that in my opinion no publishing house in its right mind would ever think about publishing such a book.
There are two reasons for this: profitability, and liability.
Looking at profitability first, it is important to understand how large publishers operate. Most of their money is made through their bestsellers. These are books that will sell a vast number of copies in a short period of time. The profits from these sales is then used to develop new authors and what is known as a “midlist” (books that are usually profitable but at a much lower level). If a publisher offers a seven-digit advance for a book, they are expecting it to perform well in the bestseller tier.
The term “advance” is a short form of the phrase “advance on royalties.” What this means is that the publisher is confident enough that the book will sell a certain number of copies that they will offer the author’s share of those sales in advance. The author does not receive any further royalties until all of the advance has been earned back by book sales. This is why many agents will phrase the advance clause as “a non-refundable advance” — it prevents the publisher from asking for the money back if the book doesn’t move enough copies.
So, the question in terms of profitability is whether a book by Amber Heard will sell enough copies to warrant paying her a seven digit advance up-front. And here, the answer seems to be a resounding “no.” A test screening of Aquaman 2 where Heard had over 20 minutes of screen time resulted in #boycottaquaman2 trending on Twitter. A well publicized interview on Dateline resulted in the show receiving its lowest ratings of the season when the interview aired. It now appears very clear that the public does not care to hear what Amber Heard has to say at this time.
The second issue is liability. Any publisher large enough to offer a seven digit advance to anybody is also going to have a legal department, whose job includes vetting potential books for liability concerns. There are a number of questions that must be considered in a tell-all memoir: Will those mentioned in the book take legal action for defamation? If legal action is taken, will the case be winnable? Will the publisher’s liability insurance cover any of the legal costs? Will any of the costs be recoverable in other ways (cost award, etc.)?
In the case of a book by Amber Heard about her marriage with Johnny Depp, the liability risk would be massive and overpowering, to the point that even if an acquisitions editor had believed Heard and offered her a book deal, the legal department would go out of its way to kill it.
The problem is that the allegations made by Heard have already been found to be defamatory by an American court of law. As such, any American publishing house publishing a book with these allegations faces what is, in all probability, an open-and-shut legal proceeding against them. Contrary to what the OK! Magazine article suggests, this is not likely to be a defamation action — instead, this is more likely to be an injunction to stop the publication of the book on the grounds that its contents have already been determined to be defamatory in court. Once the injunction goes through, the book would have been strangled in its proverbial crib.
Or, put another way, any publishing house considering such a book contract would be better served by tossing the entire budget for the book’s advance, editing, and publicity into a bonfire — at least that way, they’d get something nice to watch as the money burned. The book itself would never see the light of day.
So why the exclusive news report about it, then?
The wording itself is meaningful in the degree to which it is meaningless. The article states that Heard is “already in talks and is excited about it” — but this doesn’t indicate that a deal is close to being on the table, or even that anybody is giving the project serious consideration. Instead, it could mean little more than Heard having sent out some inquiries and her emails not bouncing. No publisher is named, nor is there any timeline for publication mentioned, which is suggestive that no publisher has actually expressed interest. This is assuming that the claim of discussions is true at all, and, considering the source, there is at least some likelihood that it is not.
But, this could an attempt by Heard to signal to publishers that she wants to write a book, in the hopes that at least one will be interested and contact her to secure the publication rights. Making it appear that she is in active negotiations could be used to create the impression of a bidding war, raising the value of any offers made. This makes far more sense as far as explaining this article than the idea that an actual negotiation is taking place, since publishers prefer to announce upcoming books after the contract is signed, as opposed to publicizing the contract negotiations.
Of course, the problem with all of this is that, as mentioned above, no publishing house in its right mind would likely touch this book — even if it got to the point of a contract being signed, the legal action that followed would prevent it from ever being published. As such, as a piece of legitimate news it is extremely unlikely, and as an attempt at outreach to publishers it is almost certainly futile.