Textbook authors settle lawsuit over Cengage Unlimited

Choices in RelationshipsTextbook authors David Knox and Caroline Schacht have settled their lawsuit with Cengage over its Cengage Unlimited subscription service for an undisclosed sum. Under the terms of the agreement, the rights to the authors’ textbook, Choices in Relationships, will revert back to them, and Cengage will receive all rights to the authors’ remaining textbooks, Marriage and the Family, and Understanding Social Problems.

Cengage authors David Knox and Caroline Schacht filed a class action lawsuit against Cengage on May 14, claiming the company’s emphasis on digital distribution, including its new Cengage Unlimited model and expanded digital courseware offerings, violated their publishing agreements, and that the company was refusing to provide information that would allow them to audit their royalty payments.

According to the complaint, Cengage’s plan to overhaul its business model after emerging from bankruptcy in 2014, “has trampled on its authors’ rights”. The suit alleges that Cengage’s new Cengage Unlimited business model has the company “dismantling its support” for individual title sales in favor of selling subscriptions to Cengage Unlimited, which plaintiffs say violates their contracts and will reduce the amount of royalties they will earn, while allowing Cengage to retain a larger share of revenue.

In a statement released by the authors’ attorney, David Slarskey, he said: “We are proud to have worked with Professors Knox and Schacht, to have achieved their objectives, and to have resolved the litigation quickly with Cengage, on terms that were acceptable to both parties.”

Added Slarskey: “Cengage’s agreement with these authors shows they are open to negotiated buyouts but depends upon whether the parties can agree on a satisfactory offer.”

He also said that Knox and Schacht’s agreement with Cengage does not resolve the claims for any other author: “Any other author who wants to pursue this on behalf of the class might be able to with court certification.”

Said TAA President Mike Kennamer: “While some TAA members were disappointed with the outcome of this case, I could not be more pleased with the way that TAA staff covered the story and kept our membership up-to-date as the story progressed. While we cannot control the news, we can continue to provide textbook and academic authors with up-to-the-minute reporting on the issues that impact us all.”

Cengage authors Marlys Mayfield and Susan Fawcett, both winners of a TAA McGuffey Longevity Award for sustained excellence, had this joint comment: “Many Cengage authors have expressed shock, anger, and disappointment that what was supposed to evolve into a class action representing all Cengage authors was settled in a way that seems to ignore what prompted the suit in the first place—the Cengage Unlimited subscription model and author concern that it seems to violate our contractual rights. By over-riding our per-unit royalty clauses with a mass subscription model, Cengage Unlimited will likely cut our royalties from dollars to pennies per book or ebook.

This litigation decision could be taken as a let-down in leadership for all those Cengage authors who still remain afraid of publisher reprisals should they openly express their concerns. Moreover, we do not even have the protections of a union, advocacy organization, or even literary agent, only—up to now—our contracts or lawyers, if we can afford them. Fortunately, however, we do have such an information-sharing and educational organization as TAA.”

Cengage author Liz Eisner Reding, author of Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud Revealed, commented:

“Textbook authors seemingly have no advocates and the quick settlement of this class action substantiates this. Each side has claimed victory: Cengage is delighted that this was settled quickly, and with little or no fuss. Attorney Slarsky is delighted as he’s concluded his portion of this litigation and has collected some sort of fee. Authors Knox and Schacht are no doubt delighted as they’re out from under the thumb of Cengage. Everybody’s happy.

“But what of the many Cengage authors who mistakenly got their hopes up only to have them dashed? Once again, they have been marginalized and shown that they and their work have no value.”

View the full agreement here
Cengage’s response to the agreement

About Kim Pawlak

Kim Pawlak is Director of Publishing & Operations for the Textbook & Academic Authors Association (TAA). She has been writing about the textbook and academic authoring and publishing industry for 20 years.