NEW YORK — Apparently a joke claiming that Walt Disney was a pal of Hitler was no laughing matter to the Disney corporation.
That comment and other Disney references are in the manuscript of “The Onion Presents: Our Dumb Century: 100 Years of Headlines from America’s Finest News Source,” a book that was to have been released by Disney’s Hyperion publishing arm in December but has now been canceled.
Nine publishers bid on the spurned project, which was bought Thursday by Crown editorial director Steve Ross in a rumored $450,000, two-book deal brokered by literary agent Daniel Greenberg that is considerably more than Hyperion’s original $150,000 advance for the book.
Lisa Kitei, a spokeswoman for Hyperion, which in the past has been accused of dropping books with material sensitive to Disney, would confirm only that Hyperion is no longer the publisher of the book, which is featured in its fall catalog currently out to booksellers.
Greenberg, an agent with James Levine Communications Inc., was similarly mum about the Hyperion drop, noting only that “Disney was aware of the work already done” and had fairly compensated the authors. Bidding publishers received a full manuscript of the book, which was originally acquired by Hyperion on a three-page proposal over a year ago.
“The only thing I’m contractually allowed to say by Disney is that ‘The Lion King’ will be the hit of the Broadway season,” joked Scott Dikkers, editor-in-chief of the Onion, a Madison, Wisc.-based humor magazine that specializes in parodies of historical and current news reports and headlines.
Sources who received the manuscript said the Onion humor was perhaps too hot a potato for Disney. Not only is a Nazi propaganda cartoon depicted with the aside that Hitler created it with “pal” Walt Disney, but the faux newspaper reports also take shots at stars whom Disney may not want to offend, such as Hyperion author Oprah Winfrey, who in the Onion world secedes to form a state with “cheesecake-eating housewives” called Ugogirl.
There was also speculation that Disney may have been concerned about the book’s politically incorrect humor in light of recent boycotts against the company.
The new bidding for the book brought a particular irony: Brian DeFiore, now publisher at Villard, bid for a book bought while he was at Hyperion — and lost it this second time around.
Six of the nine bidders were from the newly merged Random House and Bantam Doubleday Dell divisions, whom literary agents have been speculating can bid against each other only up to a point, at which only one house would continue to offer. Greenberg had publishers submit a blind “best bid” rather than hold the typical back-and-forth auction partly to avoid this situation.
Crown’s rumored $450,000 bid for the book is considered a bit of a risk for what is to be a paperback from the publisher’s Three Rivers imprint.
“He’s going to have to sell hundreds of thousands of books to make his money back,” said one source.
Crown editorial director Ross said a spring 1999 publication with a 150,000 first printing is planned. “I want to see a copy in every bathroom in America.”