WHAT WOULD YOU DO?: Shelly Branch, a senior special writer at The Wall Street Journal, and Sue Callaway, a contributing editor at Fortune, are suing Penguin’s Gotham Books and writer Pamela Keogh alleging breach of contract, misappropriation of idea and unfair competition, among other charges, demanding damages of $1 million each. At the center of the controversy are two books: “What Would Jackie Do?” which Branch and Callaway published with Gotham in 2005, and “What Would Audrey Do?” which Keogh wrote, also for Gotham.
Branch and Callaway say their innovation was to conceive a “style guide based on the overall comportment and habits of a deceased style icon,” applied to parts of contemporary life, such as shopping online or trying Pilates. This month, Penguin published the Audrey book, marketing it as “in the tradition of ‘What Would Jackie Do?’” with near-identical visual branding.
The two did not know each other, but the complaint says Keogh, author of “Audrey Style” and “Jackie Style,” both published by HarperCollins, communicated with Branch via e-mail, praising their book and later mentioning she had a book due to HarperCollins. Instead, she published what Penguin deemed to be next in a series.
Branch and Callaway allege Penguin breached their contract by failing to properly promote the book (including by failing to inform them that their publicist had left and their book tour had been canceled) and allowing it to be sold in discounted and bulk outlets without their permission. The complaint describes significant tension between Branch and Gotham Publisher William Shinker, who “expressed his irritation with plaintiffs through the use of expletive-laced speech” and argues that in that regard, “Penguin’s actions were motivated by personal antipathy to plaintiffs, as exhibited repeatedly by Shinker, and by a desire to work on a similar project, or projects, with Keogh.”
The complaint does not make allegations of copyright infringement, which could be tricky given that both books were produced by the same publishing house. The plaintiffs referred questions to their attorneys, while Keogh and a spokeswoman for Penguin did not respond to requests for comment. — Irin Carmon