KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 20 ― Nearly one whole year after Billion Dollar Whale released elsewhere and became a global bestseller, the US-authored book detailing its expose of the 1Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal finally hit bookstores in the United Kingdom.
The British edition of the book that explains the 1MDB scandal with “impeccable” research made its UK debut on September 12, even as legal suits against distributors continue in attempts to rein in sales of what critics consider to be among the most important books of the decade.
London-based business magazine The Economist that reported the book’s UK debut noted the strict libel laws there that sought to strike fear into the “reputation-management” publication industry.
The magazine said the problem that caused the delay began when the local arm of publisher Hachette declined to distribute the book due to legal threats from several people mentioned in Billion Dollar Whale, namely Penang-born fugitive financier Low Taek Jho who engaged high-profile British law firm Schilings to stop trade of the book.
But an independent house that also published an unflattering portrayal of the billionaire Koch brothers, Scribe, has since taken on the distribution in the UK.
“In the run-up to the British release, Scribe issued a statement reassuring British booksellers that they are on safe legal ground.
“Most, including Amazon, are now willing to stock Billion Dollar Whale. (A few brave shops have done so already, using copies ordered from America.) Sarah Braybrooke of Scribe says orders from British outlets are ‘excellent’,” The Economist wrote.
Billion Dollar Whale, written by two Wall Street Journal journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, focuses on the role of the flamboyant Low ― better known worldwide as Jho Low ― whom US prosecutors allege to be the mastermind of the biggest heist of the century worth US$4.5 billion (RM18.8 billion) from the Malaysian sovereign investment fund.
The Economist said among the main sources of sales discouragement in the country has been the legal campaign led by Schillings.
Calling the move “unusually aggressive” even by British standards, Schillings was said to have bombarded not only the publisher but also distributors, in Britain and elsewhere, with threatening letters,” the magazine noted.
“Several booksellers received reams of missives, some hand-delivered, which advised that suggesting Mr Low was guilty of fraud was “outrageously defamatory”. Selling the book would potentially interfere “in the proper administration of justice in the United States”“.
Some vendors were warned against categorising the book as “true crime”, it further noted, which many distributors. Amazon, for example, decided against selling the book in Britain (and some other European countries) after Hachette refused to indemnify it against legal action.
And Schillings has continued to fire off letters despite the September 12 release. The Economist said the firm recently sending another batch to bookshops around the world to coincide with an updated edition.
Scribe alone has received 10 letters in the past six weeks, mostly demanding that it comply with data-protection laws by handing over all personal information it holds on Low.
“But it’s also good publicity for our book,” Billion Dollar Whale co-author Hope was quoted as saying.
Low is now a fugitive sought by Interpol has been charged with money-laundering-related offences in the US and is wanted for the same in Malaysia.
Low has continued to defy the authorities and maintained his innocence, saying through a spokesman that the book is “trial-by-media at its worst” and “guilt by lifestyle”.
Among other extravagances, the book describes how Low threw lavish parties for bankers and celebrities, showering them with gifts, including a Picasso (since returned) for Leonardo DiCaprio.
Critics have lauded the Billion Dollar Whale for its impeccable research. Some of the most notable names that have read the book include Microsoft founder Bill Gates.