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‘A publisher’s worst nightmare’: How Cuomo’s book became a cautionary tale

Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House, beat out competitors with an offer of more than $5 million. It was a gamble on an author whose previous memoir sold fewer than 4,000 hardcover copies. And it backfired spectacularly.

By: New York Times |
August 11, 2021 12:42:23 pm
On Tuesday, the governor — facing sexual harassment scandals and multiple investigations, including some related to how his book was drafted — said that he was resigning from office.

Written by Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A Harris

Last summer, publishers really wanted to buy Gov Andrew Cuomo’s book.

At the time, it seemed like a guaranteed bestseller. Sales of political books were surging, and Cuomo had become a cable news fixture with a rising national profile as the man who steered New York through the first devastating surge of the coronavirus pandemic. When the manuscript began circulating, several major publishing companies vied for it in a frenzied auction, with bids soaring into the seven figures.

Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House, beat out competitors with an offer of more than $5 million. It was a gamble on an author whose previous memoir sold fewer than 4,000 hardcover copies. And it backfired spectacularly.

On Tuesday, the governor — facing sexual harassment scandals and multiple investigations, including some related to how his book was drafted — said that he was resigning from office.

“It’s like a publisher’s worst nightmare,” said Matt Latimer, whose literary agency, Javelin, represents many politicians. “It can sometimes be very risky to work on a book that responds to what’s in the zeitgeist at the moment. But I can’t imagine any publisher would have foreseen such a catastrophic ending.”

In the months following its October release, Cuomo’s book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic,” became a source of financial and ethical headaches for Crown. Sales were surprisingly weak for a title that Crown had invested in heavily, with fewer than 50,000 hardcover copies sold, according to NPD BookScan. Promoting the book became challenging, as Cuomo was mired in investigations that battered his public image, including allegations of sexual harassment from several women. In March, Crown made an attempt to distance itself from the governor, saying that it had canceled plans for a paperback version and would no longer promote the book.

Following Cuomo’s resignation announcement Tuesday, questions remained about whether Crown will pay the remainder of his advance. The governor’s tax records and other financial disclosures, which were released in May, showed that he received the bulk of his advance, $3.12 million, in 2020, and expected to receive the remaining $2 million in installments over the next two years. A spokesman for Cuomo said around that time that the governor netted about $1.5 million for the book after taxes and expenses, and that he donated $500,000 to the United Way of New York State for its COVID-relief program.

David Drake, the president of Crown, declined to comment, saying “we never comment on contractual matters or financial arrangements with any of our authors.” Robert Barnett, the lawyer who represented Cuomo in his book deal, declined to comment.

Both the New York attorney general’s office and the New York state Assembly’s judiciary committee have been investigating whether ethics rules were violated when government employees worked on Cuomo’s book. Staffers helped with tasks such as typing notes or printing and delivering drafts to the Executive Mansion, where Cuomo lives. His top aide, Melissa DeRosa, who announced her resignation Sunday, joined video meetings with publishers and helped Cuomo edit drafts of the book.

The governor was granted permission to author the book by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics. The commission barred Cuomo from using state resources, including help from government employees, to work on it. The Assembly’s inquiry is part of its broader impeachment investigation, the fate of which remains unclear now that Cuomo has resigned.

“As I previously said, any state official who volunteered to assist on this project did so on his or her own time and without the use of state resources,” Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, said in an email. “To the extent a document was printed, it was incidental.”

Many in the publishing industry were stunned by the size of Cuomo’s advance. While former presidents often land multimillion-dollar book deals — Penguin Random House paid more than $60 million for Barack and Michelle Obama’s memoirs, and Bill Clinton sold his autobiography to Knopf for about $15 million — Cuomo’s deal seemed to be an outsize sum for a governor.

At the time Crown bought the book, Cuomo’s coronavirus briefings had become appointment television for people who were desperate for a sober response to the pandemic, in contrast with former President Donald Trump, who often played down the severity of the disease. When Crown announced the book, it called it an inside account of how Cuomo stepped onto the national stage during a moment of crisis.

“With his no-nonsense daily briefings — viewed by millions of people around the world — a commitment to truth-telling, and a science-based plan for flattening the curve, Andrew Cuomo filled that void,” it said in a news release. “New York’s governor soon became the nation’s governor and a standard-bearer for the organized response we so desperately needed.”

After a brief appearance on the bestseller list, the memoir’s sales stagnated. In the spring, its prospects dimmed further as reports emerged that some of Cuomo’s aides changed a state Health Department report on nursing home deaths, adjusting the report to make the situation seem less dire just as Cuomo was starting to work on his book.

It isn’t clear whether Crown or its parent company will take any further steps to cut their losses or recoup the portion of the advance already paid. Many author contracts include conduct clauses that give publishers a way out if information comes to light that damages an author’s reputation or threatens book sales. Penguin Random House has said it requires conduct clauses in all its contracts to avoid the implication that it trusts certain authors more than others. Those agreements generally don’t allow for it to claw payments back from authors.

For the week ending July 31, the most recent data available, BookScan said Cuomo’s book sold 71 hardcover copies.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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