‘Surprising and concerning’ – Quoted in the Guardian, discussing legal threats to book sellers

Jim Waterson of the Guardian reports a bizarre story of legal reputation managers at Schillings sending threatening letters to booksellers and independent book shops, in an effort to stop them stocking a book about an (allegedly) corrupt banker.

I’m quoted near the end of the story, expressing my dismay:

Robert Sharp of English PEN, the free speech campaign group that co-founded the Libel Reform Campaign, said the decision by Low’s lawyers to target booksellerswas deeply worrying. “This is surprising, concerning and sets a terrible precedent,” he said. He argued that by focussing on the synopses, “the effect of these legal letters is to short-circuit the legal process, by putting booksellers in an impossible position”.

This is particularly worrying because during the passage of the Defamation Bill back on 2012-13, politicians specifically legislated to ensure that ‘secondary publishers’ were not targeted by lawyers when actual publishers refused to be cowed. Section 10 of the Defamation Act 2013 was the result.

In this case it seems the lawyers are saying that publishing a ‘blurb’ for the book is its own conceptually unique publication.

I would say that is rubbish: the blurbs are always written by the publishers themselves and reproduced by bookshops in marketing materials. In the case of online listings, the text is drawn directly from a central database maintained by Neilsen BookData.

It is particularly worrying that letters have been sent to individual booksellers. Receiving a legal letter of this nature can be extremely distressing, and they have no choice but to pull the book from their shelves. This practice not only affects the free speech of the authors, but affects the livelihoods of independent booksellers, too.

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