Alex Haley, who's suing his publisher for $5 million over the handling of "Roots," thinks he's not getting the proper fruits of his labors as an author who worked long and hard to create a book.
He's not alone in feeling that way. Whether his writing colleagues sympathize with his complaints or not, there is often a tension between author and publisher that isn't contained in the three-martini-lunch mythology of the publishing world.
About 30,000 new books were published in this country last year - and you'd be surprised how many of their authors spin tales of woe about inadequate promotion or distribution.
Ask a publisher about it, and you may get a candid, but off-the-record, estimation that i's probably easier to sell the idea of Idi Amin as a saint than it is to market most of the books that turn up on their lists.
Haley is assumed to have grossed well over $1 million from "Roots" (he gets $1.87 for each $12.50 hardcover and the book has more than 1.6 million copies in print). Haley's complaint is that Doubleday failed to properly promote and distribute his book, and that he had to set up his own speaking tours.
But it seems that whatever the courts decide, the lines of battle were drawn up beforehand.
Writer-journalist Jimmy Breslin, for example, does not hesitate to take sides in such a face-off. "I'm automatically against the publishers," he said yesterday. "Anyway Haley says is right and anything the other side says is wrong."
David Halberstam, author of "The Best and the Brightest," was reached at a motel in Santa Monica, Calif., and asked how he feels about such issues.
"Right now I feel for John Cheever," Halberstam said. "I think he's one of the best writers in America. Finally he is about to make some money with his new book, 'Falconer.'
"I went out to buy a copy and I couldn't find it anywhere. Now this has to coincide with his appearing on the cover of Newsweek, but I can't find the book."
Peter Maas, author of "The Valachi Papers," related that he was out making appearances promoting his book and failed to see any books around.
"Finally I went back and told them, "Look, no more appearances in book stores when they don't have my books,'" he said. "So from then on they had books. Maybe they put the books for me. I always had the thought that a I was leaving out the front door, the books were being moved out the back door to the next book store I was going to."
Robert Massie, author of "Nicholas and Alexandria," said his feeling was that "publishers are getting neaner and nastier with the authors and bearing down on them. Just off the cuff my sympathies are always with the author. My publisher is now Alfred Knopf," he added, "and I'm very happy with them."
But there are other authors who are not so sure that Haley is taking the right path.
George Higgins, whose latest book is "The Judgement of Deke Hunter," said, "Haley's case is awfully complicated. Something has to be done about the publishers, but I don't think this is the way.
I have been out of flacking books taht people can't buy. The distribution methods are haphazard. Maybe a lawsuit is correct, but on the other hand I think Haley looks awful."
Jack Nelson, authors of "The Orangeburg Massacre," said, "I think (the suit) is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of. They didn't promote his book enough? All of us wrote books that bombed. I really think that Haley has a lot of nerve."
Maybe Richard Reeves, author of the current best-seller, "Convention," best summed up both sides when he said, "A writer is always in the writer's side. My feeling is that the publishers always screw you. But it's so much a partnership of necessity. It's like a marriage. Some break up and others stay together. I haven't had any problems with my publisher."
Ernest J. Gaines, author of "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," which, like "Roots," became a smash television production (but three years after its publication), said he left a publisher because he believed the firm would not sufficiently promote or distribute his book.
Even when the book became a TV property, Gaines said it wasn't available to buy in many places.
One editor who works for a well-known New York house did concede that "There is a problem with distribution, and people in the publishing houses try to keep up with where the product is selling."
"The author standing there in a book store where the product is being sold has more clout and is the best advertising we can get. The publishers do try to get the books out. The printing problems are the hassle."
The Haley case is now in the courts, specifically Los Angeles Superior Court. He charges that Doubleday undercut the sles of the hardcover version of the book in order to increase sales on the forthcoming paperback version, which will be published by Dell, a subsidiary of Doubleday.
The link between the two-companies comes from Doubleday's sale of the paperback rights for $18,000 to Dell in 1967, followed by Doubleday's purchase of Dell in 1976. Those rights could be sold today for between $1 million and $2 million, according to publishing sources.