Pub Rants

We Interrupt This Q&A

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STATUS: Off to Italy tomorrow but I will try and blog.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TELL ME WHAT by Fine Young Cannibals

To give you a real rant. Today I found out that Penguin is no longer sending out final contracts electronically in locked PDF.

Why? Because some unethical agent decided to tamper with the e-lock and then make unauthorized changes in the contract before sending on to a client for signing.

Now the rest of us have to go back to the stone age of having things mailed (unbelievable!) to us.

Unethical agent, I want to hunt you down and slap you upside the head.

Now, I have argued with Penguin to create an “approved agents list.” I’m sure there are many agents like me who have more than proven that we don’t contract tamper and can be trusted with a locked electronic PDF for final contract.

I’m so annoyed by this, I can barely type. And other publishers, please don’t take this step backwards. There is a lot of technology out there that could resolve this issue. Use it. Going back to snail mail is costly—and I do mean in actual dollars.

33 Responses

  1. Weronika said:

    Are you kidding?

    That is ridiculous.

    I want to know who this agent is and warn everyone not to consider him or her.

    Thanks for sharing. It’s always good to know that things like this are still happening.

  2. MeganRebekah said:

    WOW! Unbelievable. I hope you (or other agents) know who the unethical one is so you can beat some sense into them. Or maybe toilet paper their house. I can’t believe people would do that and expect not to get caught.

    There have got to be other ways of adding security though. Maybe using a third party secured site to host the contracts?

  3. Courtney Milan said:

    That is unbelievable!

    It’s not only unethical, it’s just plain stupid. If the different contract language was ever material, what would the agent have done? Pointed it out and said, “ha ha, I cheated, I won?”

    Not gonna work.

  4. Tracy said:

    That doesn’t make any sense to me. Why wouldn’t Penguin just go after the unethical agent, legally. Seems the best way to keep other unethical folks honest is to scare them with massive lawsuits.

    Or maybe I’m just a vengeful person.

    Ciao, and have a safe trip!

  5. Adrian Lopez said:

    I’m not familiar with Adobe’s e-lock system, but if it’s really so easy to defeat then it’s just as well that Penguin has decided not to rely on it for its contracts.

    Rather than mailing out printed contracts (which can also be tampered with), how about adopting a better cryptographic mechanism?

  6. Eridani said:

    You know, the mailmen might open those envelopes and rework the contracts, too. I’m pretty sure the only way to be truly certain no tampering occurred is if we chisel the contract into stone tablets. Gee, sometimes the old ways really are the best ways!

  7. Kristi said:

    I wish we knew which agent it was — so those of us about to query could remove them from our list. Hope the trip to Italy is fabulous!

  8. Eridani said:

    In addition to my earlier snark, I also have something constructive to say!

    Why is there a need to ‘send’ anything? Any publisher could easily set up a secure website where verified agents and authors could log in and review contracts, then attach a digital signature once all parties are in agreement. It also works great for revision tracking and comments, so that it’s all there in one place. What changes occurred between version 1 and version 9 of the contract? Click this link and you get the comparison. Wouldn’t that be great?

    So, this way, all changes are version controlled, all identities are verified (send each member an authenticator if you’re really worried about security), and nobody can tamper with anything without all parties knowing it. This is the system we use for doing reviews where I work. I can’t believe they don’t go to something like this instead of just firing up the USPS.

    As I may have said before, the publishing industry is woefully hidebound.

  9. Anthony said:

    That certainly sucks.

    PDF e-lock was never intended to be a end-to-end tamper-proof solution. PDFs can be digitally signed with a dual-key system that would immediately detect tampering such as you describe.

    Unfortunately, your story is not exactly rare, which is why a full digital signature solution is always preferable in B2B e-commerce and is a solution I recommend to my clients without hesitation.

    I would politely push back to your publisher. While they are the victims of tampering, they also did not use the mechanisms to prevent this. There are numerous digital signature solutions designed to prevent just what happened, many of them accepted internationally via statutory rules regarding the replacement of paper documents in digital transactions.

  10. David F. Weisman said:

    I can’t help thinking – did Penguin ever change their contract without mentioning it to the agents they deal with first? And you still use their template contracts, right?

    I know that agent has created a lot of aggravation for everyone. I just can’t help thinking of it from the other side.

    If it turns out Penguin never had and never would do such a thing, I apologize to them and salute them!

  11. Gilbert J. Avila said:

    Is this agent been listed in the Writer Beware, Preditors and Editors, and the SFWA’s Agents Thumbs Down listings? Is this agent a solo operator, or part of a big house? Give us a hint, please, so newbies can avoid him/her.

  12. Courtney Milan said:

    I can’t help thinking – did Penguin ever change their contract without mentioning it to the agents they deal with first?

    There is a BIG difference between changing boilerplate and presenting it to an agent for discussion without highlighting changes, and changing text that has been dickered and negotiated and agreed upon as final.

    One of those things is really cheesy. The other one is actually fraudulent.

  13. DG said:


    This post is a perfect example of why I look forward to reading your blog every day.

    Where else can a writer get this kind of insight–your world and what you have to deal with. This post was certainly an eye-opener!

    Thanks again

  14. Donna said:

    Stupid on the agent’s part. The publisher can and will cancel the contract based on either fraud or mistake. The author and agent will get a black eye. Behavior like that is amateurish and ineffective. I hope the author is furious at being misled. What a way to start a career.

  15. Anonymous said:

    I feel bad for the author. It’s a terrible thing to be linked with an agent that no one in the industry respects — it reflects badly on the author, and he/she’s probably pretty clueless that the agent is not on the up and up (until now).

  16. Laurel said:

    Is that even legal? I would think Penguin had grounds to pursue legal action in this situation. At the very least it seems the contract would be invalid. I presume once they sent it out it would be deemed “signed” by Penguin and you cannot make changes to something once it’s been signed, right?

    I mean, if I bought a car and the dealer gave me all the signed paperwork stating the nature of our agreement I wouldn’t be able to change $20K to $15K on the contract and then just write a check and drive away.

  17. Peter Newland said:


    That is almost unbelievable.

    Sorry to hear about that. I hope they come to their senses though. One unscrupulous person should not be allowed to have such an impact on a publisher’s bottom line. Kristin is right, this will cost them a lot more if they insist on continuing with their snail mail “solution”.

    I liked Kristin’s “approved agent list” idea, but I must say, Eridani made a great suggestion. It makes me wonder… does the publishing industry even have IT people? It sometimes seems like they do not. As Eridani pointed out though, there are real proven and effective digital solutions that would enable the kind of secure collaboration or “e-negotiating” that you all seem to be looking for.

    Hope this all gets straightened out!

  18. Mechelle Fogelsong said:

    Only a writer would think of this. When I read the words, “I have argued with Penguin”, my mind conjured up Ms. Nelson in a face-off with one of the Happy Feet guys.

    It made me laugh.

    I’ve been spending too much time editing!

  19. behlerblog said:

    Kristin, this little publisher wouldn’t dream of going back to hard copies – even though I had an agent do this very thing. I nearly exploded. Well, no, I actually did explode and told the agent how unethical they were and that I’d never work with them again.

    How’d I catch it? I always do a document compare. I’ll continue to so rather than make life difficult for everyone.

  20. Dara said:

    That seems over-the-line ridiculous to me. What is it with publishers deciding to go so extreme when something doesn’t quite go their way? You’d think they’d be more open-minded in this climate.

  21. Cassandra said:

    This is tangential, but — for the technologically challenged or just inexperienced among us (I hope it’s not just me…) whose brains freeze just reading some of these comments, can anyone suggest a way/ source/ book/ site/ blog to help us catch up, specifically with respect to publishing?

    Slinking away in shame …

  22. EKMac said:

    That is despicable. That agent is a common criminal, and needs to be called out for this. We writers need to know if a potential agent is unethical. If Penguin doesn’t name names, than the only outcome is more people will get hurt by this unscrupulous person.
    As for Penguin, they just need to update to better technology, not go running for the 20th century hills..
    Erin Rieber

  23. Beverley BevenFlorez said:

    I’ve seen this happen a lot in business. Several years ago, our company had limited internet access to people they deemed needed it for business reasons. Well, one person figured out how to add internet access to their computer and then proceeded to show a few others how to do it, too. When management discovered the issue, they decided NO ONE should have internet. It was ridiculous. It took several weeks of preaching rationality before management backed down. It’s a huge overreaction to say that because one person subverted the system that the entire system should be changed. Good luck to you and your colleagues on talking Penguin down. Maybe after a couple of weeks of printing and mailing contracts they’ll rethink their policy.

  24. Laura said:

    Penguin is one of my publishers. I do business with them via a literary lawyer rather than via an agent. Unless there’s a sudden and very unfortunate sea change, I anticipate going to contract with them again this year… and will indeed be annoyed, too, if as a result of that unethical agent’s bad behavior, my lawyer and I can’t get my final contract from Penguin in PDF format anymore.

    Having to wait for the printed, snailmail version to arrive will slow down payment. It will also mean that if my lawyer and I want digital copies (always a good idea to have them, IMO), then we’ll have to SCAN the damn thing.

    What a nuisance some jerk has created for a lot of people dealing with this house.

  25. Diana said:

    It’s very frustrating when an organization makes a giant policy change because of one person, when really, they could just do something about the one person.

    Poor author. He/she must be REALLY frustrated. If he/she even knows what happened.