LONDON — In an unusual upset, a renowned tell-it-all publisher is objecting — unsuccessfully — to the publication of his own work. To the release, in fact, of his autobiography.
Julian Assange’s memoir, which hit bookshelves here Thursday, belongs to a genre unto itself: the unauthorized autobiography.
Several literary giants and celebrities — including Mark Twain and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — have prevented their personal material from being published until years after their deaths. But as the WikiLeaks founder knows better than most, objecting to the release of information is no guarantee that it will be withheld. And when the book recounts not only the launch of the whistle-blowing Web site but sexcapades in Sweden that led to allegations of rape, all bets are off.
The publication of the highly anticipated memoir, titled somewhat unimaginatively “Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography,” follows a spectacular falling-out between Assange, 40, and his British-based publisher.
Three months ago, Assange tried to cancel the book contract, for which he reportedly was paid more than $1 million, saying the initial draft by his ghostwriter — Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan, whom Assange describes as a close friend — deviated sharply from his vision.
“This book was meant to be about my life’s struggle for justice through access to knowledge. It has turned into something else. The events surrounding its unauthorized publication by Canongate are not about freedom of information — they are about old-fashioned opportunism and duplicity,” Assange said in a statement posted on the WikiLeaks site.
He said that when he asked to cancel his contract, he pleaded for a new one with an extended deadline, in light of his ongoing legal tussles. He said he told Canongate that he could deliver a manuscript by the end of the year.
Nick Davies, the publishing director of Canongate, said in an interview that he “pretty much takes issue with everything” in Assange’s statement posted Thursday, adding: “We have strong legal and moral ground for publishing this book.”
He said that in March, it was clear that Assange was unhappy with the initial draft O’Hagan wrote, but even though Assange was repeatedly invited to comment, make edits and spell out a new vision for the book, he “did not deliver a single word.”
What he did do is ask to cancel his contract. Canongate “reluctantly agreed” and asked Assange to pay back his advance, Davies said.
But the money already had been handed over to Assange’s attorneys to pay legal fees.
“I’ve worked on other books, and you hit a bump and you find a new way of writing,” Davies said. “Or, you go separate ways and the money is repaid. But this has been just a bizarre situation.” He contended that the seemingly paradoxical “unauthorized autobiography” category could be “a publishing first.”
Assange did not respond to requests for an interview, but in his statement he lashes out at his publisher for “profiteering from an unfinished and erroneous draft.”
In the 244-page memoir, Assange traces his early childhood in Australia (his mother, who helped run a puppet theater, said he had “the look of an Eskimo” when he was born) through to his founding of the site that has embarrassed the U.S. government with its astonishing release of thousands of diplomatic cables.
The book opens with Assange in Wandsworth prison, where he reflects on what he calls the harsh prison treatment of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of leaking to WikiLeaks.
He also recounts how his relationship soured with the Guardian and the New York Times, his former allies in publishing confidential cables. The Guardian is “the most ill-named paper in the world,” according to the memoir, while the New York Times is guilty “of strategic cowardice.”
Assange denies any sexual misconduct with two Swedish women. The allegations are the subject of court proceedings. Perhaps the women were motivated by revenge, he said, or perhaps he was set up. He said a Western intelligence agency warned him that the U.S. government was discussing ways to deal with him “illegally,” which could include an elaborate trap.
“I may be a chauvinist pig of some sort but I am no rapist,” Assange writes. “They each had sex with me willingly and were happy to hang out with me afterwards.”
He says “A,” whom he described as “a little neurotic,” sent a tweet the day after the alleged rape saying she was “with the coolest people in the world.” And “W,” who “was a little vague,” asked him to call her after they kissed goodbye at a train station, but he did not. “It has already turned out to be the most expensive call I didn’t make,” he writes.
Assange concedes that he was cold to the women but denies criminality. “I wasn’t a reliable boyfriend, or even a very courteous sleeping partner, and this began to figure. Unless, of course, the agenda had been rigged from the start,” he writes.
When Canongate signed Assange in December, the move was seen as a fantastic coup for the relatively small Scottish publisher, who went on to sell the book rights to 38 publishing houses worldwide, including Alfred A. Knopf in the United States.
In the opening pages of the memoir, the publisher says that Assange sat for more than 50 hours of interviews with his ghostwriter at Ellingham Hall, a Georgian manor home northeast of London where Assange lives under partial house arrest as he fights an extradition warrant to Sweden.
But as time went on, “Julian became increasingly troubled by the thought of publishing an autobiography,” the publisher writes. “In the end, the work was to prove too personal.”
A statement from Knopf confirmed that it canceled plans to publish the memoir in the United States: “The author did not complete his work on the manuscript or deliver a book to us in accordance with our agreement.”
Assange told the Sunday Times in December that he was reluctant to write a memoir, but that he needed the money to replenish WikiLeaks’ coffers.
“I don’t want to write this book, but I have to,” he told the paper. “I have already spent £200,000 [more than $300,000] for legal costs and I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat.”
A WikiLeaks post Wednesday on Twitter read: “Life is stranger than fiction” and offered a helpful link to Amazon for anyone seeking to buy the book for 11.63 pounds (about $18) in the United Kingdom.