Canongate explains just why it is publishing Julian Assange's (unauthorised) autobiography

The man behind the controversial publication this week of the unauthorised autobiography of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has explained just why his firm went ahead - despite objections from the central figure.

Canongate explains publishing reasons

Nick Davies, publishing director of Edinburgh-based Canongate Books, in an article carried on the Media Guardian website, said that late last year Assange had just been released from Wandsworth prison and wanted to find a publisher for his book.

Recalls Davies: “Here was Julian's chance to raise some much-needed money for WikiLeaks and to set his critics straight. And Canongate Books seemed like the perfect fit: a small, independent publishing house that has always been happy to take a risk and admired what Julian and WikiLeaks had achieved.

“The first three months couldn't have gone much better. Canongate's managing director, Jamie Byng, and I travelled to Norfolk to see Julian in early January. Our first priority was to find a ghostwriter to work on the project.

“Julian was very clear about what he wanted: ‘I have all the facts. Find me a novelist who can turn those facts into stories’.

“We struck it lucky with the writer we found: an award-winning novelist who was equally comfortable writing serious, hard-hitting reportage.

“He was a strong character too. Somebody who could put his hand up and tell Julian when he was talking shit or veering off subject.

“It was a brilliant combination and the two men worked late into the night, most nights, drinking whisky in the icy-cold drawing room at Ellingham Hall through January, February and March.

“At the same time, Canongate – on Julian's behalf – struck rights deals with 38 of the best publishing houses around the world. This really would be a global book launch, which seemed fitting for the founder of WikiLeaks and his international fan base. What could possibly go wrong?

“Julian's ghostwriter delivered a brilliant first draft of the book, bang on schedule, at the end of March. We read it and loved it. Julian didn't. He didn't love it. We're not even sure how much he actually read.

“It was an extraordinary reaction to a manuscript he should have been grateful for and immensely proud of.

“What followed was a series of broken promises. We set Julian free to work on the manuscript himself. He had six weeks to edit and rewrite.

“On the day he was supposed to return it to us, we heard that he'd lost all of his work. It was buried in one of his many laptops and he couldn't find it (dogs and homework came to mind).

“Then he told us he wanted to cancel his contract. But he couldn't repay his advance. He had already signed it over to his lawyers to cover his escalating legal bills.

“There have been countless other twists and turns to this extraordinary story.

“But the reason we've decided to publish the book – against Julian's will, but with clear forewarning – is this: with no prospect of ever seeing Julian's advance repaid to us, and with little chance of convincing Julian to engage with that first draft, we had only one sensible option – to publish the draft that we felt was so strong and which conformed so closely to the original brief.

“There is a financial imperative, of course. We hope that in publishing the book we will recover some of our losses. But we are also immensely proud of the book itself. It is a compelling portrait of one of the most mercurial figures alive today.

“As for that much commented-upon subtitle, The Unauthorised Autobiography, it is definitely a publishing first.

“And given we're talking about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks there is, of course, a sweet irony to it too.”

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