If you're a regular reader of my blog, you doubtless understand this blog is, at heart, a "publishing journalism" site. Things happen in the publishing industry, and I talk about them. There are lessons for writers to learn, and I share them. Other people have opinions, and I let them offer their thoughts. That's why I found it interesting that a publisher is threatening to sue me.
You might have heard the news that Wine Press Publishing, a vanity press in the state of Washington, is in a battle with the former owner of the company, a woman named Athena Dean. You can google the topic to get all the details, which is how I found out about it. The argument basically comes down to the former owner claiming she was treated badly by a group she believes is, more or less, a fundamentalist church that has taken over the company. The current situation is an interesting study in business ethics and church governance and arcane theology, but you'd have to go somewhere else to find the details, since I've never blogged about it before. I haven't said anything about it on my corporate website, either. Nor have I written about it for any other magazine, e-zine, or journal. I could have — I mean, I'm a trained journalist, talking about the publishing industry, and the allegation that a big company that's very involved in Christian publishing has acted unfairly toward employees or tried to intimidate people is news. But I didn't. Not because I was afraid to (and yes, I've heard a couple people warn that Wine Press has used lawyers and intimidation tactics on others in the past), but because I wanted to wait and see what the facts brought out. I don't have a dog in this hunt — but I'm very interested in the hunt itself and the story surrounding it.
My sole reference to this particular cat-fight is a comment I left on a Facebook page. That's right — I once read an article and left a comment on the piece I saw, since I found it shocking. Here's what I wrote upon reading about the allegations: "Holy cow. I mean… WOW! This will blow the socks off of anyone who's been involved in CBA publishing in recent years. Wow…"
That's the sum total of my verbiage so far on the topic. Certainly if you've read some of the things that have been alleged, you were probably shocked as well. But, like me, you probably refrained from taking sides and writing attack pieces. And that's why I thought it was interesting when I opened my mail last week and found an official letter from the Wine Press attorney, accusing me of being "a co-conspirator" with some people to interfere with their business. Really. Me, a co-conspirator.
As evidence of the conspiracy, they sent me copies of confidentiality agreements signed by former employees Cindy Scinto (a person I've never met, and never spoken to), Amber Payne (a person I've never met, never spoken to, and never even heard of), and Athena Dean (who I've met at several writing conferences, always when she was representing Wine Press). Yes — these are my alleged co-conspirators… three people I don't know, two of whom I've never actually spoken to. The letter also noted that my activity was "illegal and shameful, and your liability for it is great, and growing by the day," and the pages offered various Bible verses to show me how godly their argument was. It failed to explain which part of my Facebook comment was illegal, or what was shameful about making a comment, or how exactly I'd be liable, but it did note that I was to "disavow all support and agreement with the conspiracy in order to avoid further liability." I particularly like that part — I'm thinking this is sort of like being on the old "Mission Impossible" team — where you don't know the other people, but, like Mr Phelps, you had to disavow any knowledge of your actions. Anyway, the letter demanded I send proof of my actions to the lawyer's office within ten days, and ended with the dire warning, "Failure to do so can and will result in full prosecution of you… to the full extent of the law." Uh huh.
I have a couple thoughts I'll share… First, the lawyer really needs to brush up on his First Amendment reading. For all the scary language, I'm fairly certain freedom of the press still exists in this country, so unless I slander someone or intend actual malice in a review, I'm not sure I can actually be charged with a crime. I mean, I understand if the people running Wine Press are embarrassed about the current situation getting talked about negatively in public (former employees complaining publicly, the person who started the company taking accusations to local law enforcement, etc), but I'm pretty confident the limited number of CBA news outlets, such as this blog, are still allowed to report on the story.
Second, I'm no lawyer, but it would appear to me there has to be some sort of collusion (or at least a conversation) for there to be a conspiracy. For that matter, I'm surprised they didn't list Carla Williams as a conspirator — she's the only person at Wine Press I really know. (But her being married to the guy behind all of this probaby kept them from going after her as well.) Of course, I'd love to hear what law I broke. Maybe in the follow-up letter, the people at Wine Press can explain it to me, and include some more Old Testament verses to shore up their claims.
Third, the threat of criminal prosecution came… from their lawyer? Unless Wine Press has now been put in charge of the District Attorney's office, I don't think they can actually prosecute me. I don't know — maybe I need to watch some more reruns of Law & Order, so I can brush up on my legal stuff. I know the folks at Wine Press sued an author for criticizing them (and lost), but perhaps they learned something when they got smacked down by that judge.
Fourth, it seems like it would be completely inappropriate to send out signed copies of someone else's confidentiality agreement. I mean, isn't that why you have a confidentiality agreement? So you can keep it, you know, "confidential"? (The attorney I spoke to told me that's pretty much all I need to recognize their lawyer's level of professional competence.)
And fifth, the threats in the letter they sent me would appear to support what I've heard — that Wine Press likes to try and intimidate people in order to get their way.
Of course, most of the people behind Wine Press are all part of a church — the Sound Doctrine church, which I know some online reports have branded a cult. They are perhaps best known for their belief in "hating for Jesus" — a concept I SWEAR I'm not making up. Anyway, they were nice enough to include some Scripture verses in the packet they sent me, to try and dress this up as a "Christian" conversation. (I'm pretty sure I could pull out some verses from Corinthians about not threatening to take other believers to court, but that's beside the point.) One verse they cite is this: "Gossip separates close friends." Which was good to read, considering this came from the company that set up THIS website: http://hardtruth.sdoctrine.org/realfacts/ which appears to me to be nothing more than a hatchet job on the woman they're now fighting with, Athena Dean. So apparently SOME gossip is okay (for example, I notice they make a point of revealing Athena has been divorced twice — a fact I'm not sure is germane to the current conversation).
[Editorial Note: I noticed the Sound Doctrine Church people have tweaked this website, apparently trying to soften some of the language or steer readers to other pages. My apologies if you click on it and it now leads to a "Chip MacGregor is the Antichrist" page. You never know with these folks.]
Anyway, I really wanted to write to them and explain that (a) I'm not part of a conspiracy, and (b) I don't scare easily, and (c) up until they acted like jerks and inspired me, I'd never actually written about the situation, but only read about it online, in stories available to anyone with an internet connection and a Facebook account. Instead, I think I'll write and offer them some of my own biblical advice: "Be fruitful and multiply." Except I may not use those words…