Fearing the reaction of Warner Bros., several publishers have rejected a parody of Harry Potter, prompting the author to self-publish.
The book, Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody, was shopped around to a number of publishers and magazines, including St. Martin's, Talk and Vanity Fair, and met with favorable editorial response. But at least some of the publishers queried by the author rejected the proposal after running it by corporate counselors. "I think their thinking was, 'You're going to make more money if you play with Warner Bros. than if you're perceived as playing against them,' " said the book's author, humorist and New Yorker veteran Michael Gerber. Tired of arguing his case, Gerber this month will self-publish the title in what he says will serve as a "bellwether" for parody. "If Warner sues, we might as well roll up literary parody right now," he said. Gerber said the book, which features an attempt to prevent a movie about the School of Hogwash from being made, is meant not only as entertainment, but as a serious comment on media conglomerates.
First Amendment advocates have increasingly complained that the willingness of media conglomerates and others to engage in lengthy and expensive lawsuits has had a chilling effect for some publishers and resulted in a kind of de facto censorship. They cite the ongoing Wind Done Gone case as an example.
At the same time, some publishers said, skittishness in this instance is not without foundation. "It's not a First Amendment issue; it's a copyright issue," said one high-ranking magazine editor. "Whoever would buy it would need to figure out how to package it, how to publish it. Frankly, given how much Warner has paid for the franchise, they'd be right to be scared."
Gerber is doing his own marketing for the title, and the book is available through Amazon.com and Ingram. While Gerber would obviously like to avoid getting sued, he has formed a company, Fantastic Books, to limit what Warner could take from him personally. Gerber is less worried about offending Scholastic (where he once worked) since the house has spent less on the franchise and does not hold as wide a swath of marketing rights.