The Economist reports in its 12 April, 2014 issue on the cancellation of the publication of Karen Dawisha’s next book, a study of “the origins of high-level corruption in Russia, focussing on the links between the ex-KGB, business and gangsterdom in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s”. Her publisher, Cambridge University Press, “has got cold feet” claiming that “potential legal costs and difficulties involved in being required to prove its premise is true, or even in getting a detailed opinion of the risks, are too great”.

However in implying blame to Cambridge University Press, “which has published her seven previous works” the story minimizes the acknowledged fact that no contract exists between the author and CUP. The article opines that “critics would say that in academic publishing such formal deals are as rare as advances”. Of course this layered sentence does distance things a bit from The Economist‘s editorial desk, but we wonder who these “critics” are. I don’t know which academic publishers The Economist (or the critics) are thinking of, but in my experience contracts for academic books are universally required. (Advances against royalties, while perhaps less frequent than at some times in the past, and of lower dollar amount, are an on-going component of competition between university and other academic presses.) There can be no question of a publisher’s right to publish only such books as they want to. Clearly declining to offer a contract to an established author with whom you have a long-standing relationship is not a decision you’d reach easily and without thorough discussion.

Karen Dawisha, whose books I have had the privilege of working on in the past, surely cannot be serious when she describes CUP’s attitude as a “pre-emptive bookburning”. She is it’s true most annoyed at England’s libel-friendly legal system. The Economist concedes “To be fair, British news outlets might also consider her subject too hot to handle”. Libel suits are perhaps not the only risks — I can recall having to evacuate the office once in consequence of a bomb threat relating to a (relatively anodyne) reference in a general history to an almost century-old event which still stirs up resentment in the country where it occurred. It is likely that she may be able to interest an American publisher in her book — though I believe that an English libel suit can be brought if even a single copy is found there.