Publish or Panic
The credibility of books is in a million little pieces. The Web is stealing readers. But publishers are fighting back
Does the book publishing biz have a good read for you! The story begins with a real-life drama peppered with deceit, humiliation, and redemption; plays out against the big-bucks backdrop of global conglomerates; crosses into sci-fi as newfangled techno-gizmo gadgets battle for a piece of the electronic future; gives grass-roots hope to would-be authors everywhere with the massive growth of microsize independent presses; veers into legal thriller territory with a brewing fight over copyrights; and ultimately settles into an old-fashioned mystery as pundits wonder, what happened to America's disappearing book readers?
Book publishing became big news in January, of course, when Oprah Winfrey devoted a full segment of her TV show to rebuking James Frey, the truth-challenged author of A Million Little Pieces. His supposed memoir of jail time, drug addiction, and rehabilitation had shot to bestsellerdom after Oprah selected it for her book club a few months before--and continued to sell well even after the website thesmokinggun.com exposed a laundry list of Frey's embellishments and fabrications. Feeling betrayed, Oprah made a further point of scolding Frey's high-profile publisher, Doubleday Senior Vice President Nan Talese, for not fact-checking the veracity of her author. (A request to interview Talese for this story was declined, although the simple answer to Oprah's rebuke is that fact-checking is not part of the memoir publishing process--it would cost too much.)
Whoops, sorry! In the aftermath, Doubleday and Frey issued apologies. But questions about editorial scrutiny remained center stage when embarrassing revelations emerged about other highly touted writers and their work: It seemed that edgy novelist JT Leroy was not the HIV-positive teenage male street hustler that readers had been led to believe--but 40-year-old mother Laura Albert. The acclaimed Indian writer known as Nasdijj was not of Navajo descent, as he had claimed, but Timothy Patrick Barrus, an author of gay erotica.
At a time when "truthiness" issues in so many areas of public discourse have pitted trust against cynicism, the convergence of all three scandals at once had the feel of a Triple Crown of hoaxery, with the grand losers being accuracy, truth, and literature itself.
Was it mere coincidence or was something seriously amiss?
To be sure, literary fabrications have a centuries-long history, and yarn-spinning memoirists can point to no less a predecessor than Ernest Hemingway. But--and it's an important but--"Papa" Hemingway did preface A Moveable Feast, his account of life in Paris in the 1920s as recorded more than 30 years later, with the warning, "If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact."
And the fact is that the Frey scandal doesn't really throw much light on the changes and challenges that are reshaping the book industry today.
Long before the National Endowment for the Arts released its 2004 report "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," book publishers had become keenly aware of growing competition from the expanding universe of Internet, computer, and video-based leisure enthrallments. But the survey sounded a public alarm: Fewer than half of all American adults now read "literature" (loosely defined as fiction or poetry). The numbers showed a 10 percent decline in literary readers for all age groups from 1982 to 2002 and a whopping 28 percent decrease in young adults ages 18 to 24. In total, the study calculated, 20 million potential readers had been lost. "Never in my career have I seen a report where there is no good news," NEA Chairman Dana Gioia declared at the time.