December 2, 2006
Money and Morals in Book PublishingBy Richard L. Cravatts
In 1948, one year after the death of legendary Charles Scribner's Sons editor Maxwell Perkins - editor of Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and Wolfe - the annual Books in Print index listed 85,000 titles from only 357 book publishers. The small scale of the book trade at that time meant that book publishers continued their tradition of being gatekeepers of our culture and knowledge; publishing, it was thought, was a calling for those for whom commerce was a secondary consideration.
Distilling and developing insight, literature, philosophy, social commentary, what we now like to call ‘intellectual capital,' was the chief role of publishers. The profession was refined, gentile, a self-imposed meritocracy which, in serving primarily the literate upper classes, had as its unspoken mandate to identify works of quality and enable them to be enshrined and preserved in book form.
But those days, despite their sentimental appeal, are clearly gone: in 2005, for instance, R.R. Bowker, who compiles publishing statistics, tallied over 172,000 new books generated on the presses of some 70,000 publishers. That means that editors can no longer languish attentively over the works of their promising authors; not only that, but the intense competition and risk in a marketplace of conglomerates, mass market titles, cavernous national book chains, and a highly segmented reading audience means that book publishing's core role of facilitating the creation of quality literature and non-fiction has itself been radically altered. Increasingly, as has been made clear in three significant publishing ‘conflicts of conscience' this year, that new role is now shaped by the economic imperatives of the market, a state in which commerce drives culture rather than being pulled along behind it.
Publishing, of course, does not exist in a cultural vacuum, and has been contorted along with other forms of media in an age of reality TV shows, downloaded online videos on YouTube, iPods, e-books, to include a whole new role for book publishing: legitimizing and promulgating contemporary pop culture and "selling" it to readerships increasing susceptible to contemporary marketing techniques. That has meant that publishers have frequently had to preempt issues and ideas in popular culture, package the sensational rather than the meaningful, and generally attempt to remain competitive in an information-hungry society which, some say, sadly demands a less-than-elevated quality of information.
Perhaps no better example of that change in publishing's operating style has shown itself than the recent ethical challenge facing Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., whose ReganBooks imprint had contracted with former professional football player O.J. Simpson to participate in a two-night interview on Fox TV and concurrently release a ghost-written confessional, "If I Did It," a seemingly cathartic reflection by Mr. Simpson on how, if hypothetically he had killed his wife and her friend in 1994, he would have done it.
The denunciation and near universal opprobrium that rained down on the Fox Network, ReganBooks, and Judith Regan herself, the eponymous publisher of the sensationally successful imprint, for taking on this unseemly project was thunderous, absolute, and potentially damaging to News Corp., as if too much ‘buzz,' the publicity that all marketers yearn for, finally proved to be too much of a bad thing.
"It used to be that publishing declared its morality, its values, its world view by the books it chose to publish," observed Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, but perhaps that is a luxury that book publishers like Ms. Regan can no longer afford, nor, more importantly, are they apparently being asked to do by the marketplace: ReganBooks generates some $50 million each year for parent company HarperCollins and is responsible for the highest profit margins in the Murdoch empire. And it has achieved those stellar results consistently, based on such books as adult video star Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, ball player Jose Canseco's Juiced : Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big, shock-jock Howard Stern's autobiography, three books covering the Scott Peterson murder trial, and such weighty TV series as "Growing Up Gotti."
And besides, said Ms. Regan in defense of her decision to put together the Simpson project, the lives and deeds of public figures, even malevolent ones, do provide interesting and potentially valuable information for the public. "'To publish' does not mean ‘to endorse'; it means ‘to make public,'" she said. "There is a historical value in publishing such material, so that the public can read, and judge for themselves, the thoughts and attempted defenses of an indefensible man." But the two-part interview of Mr. Simpson, as well as the "co-branded" book, has been shelved-at least for the foreseeable future. Thinking the better of the corporate decision to produce the project, Mr. Murdoch himself pulled the plug on the ungainly enterprise and ordered all copies of If I Did It to be destroyed, although the book has already appeared on online auction site eBay, with bids as high as $2000 for a work no one could stomach when the proceeds were benefiting Simpson himself.
Confessionals have not proven to be an easy product for publishers at all this year. Witness the fallout over the hugely successful self-reflection of former alcoholic, felon, and drug addict James Frey over the substance and truthfulness of his A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of one man's descent into degeneracy that sold over 3.5 million copies and spent weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. This time, the reception to the book, in spite of its gritty content and personal story, was not the issue. In fact, one particular admirer of the book was Oprah Winfrey, whose choice of A Million Little Pieces for her book club resulted in more than two million copies being sold in the following three months.
Everything was going swimmingly after Oprah's effusive praise was heaped upon the memoir, a book she "couldn't put down . . . a gut-wrenching memoir that is raw and it's so real..," but trouble was brewing: The Smoking Gun, an investigative web site, disclosed in an extensive report that Mr. Frey's so-called memoir was in fact replete with inaccuracies, exaggerations, embellishments, fictional event, and outright lies-making it more like fiction and less than true. An embarrassed and enraged Oprah excoriated Frey publicly on air in a second appearance, and took to task his publisher, Nan Talese, as well.
"Oprah Winfrey . . . was had," said Stanley Crouch, columnist for the New York Daily News. "It's that simple." The larger issue, more important than the inauthenticity of the memoir itself, or even whether the events happened as Frey described them, is whether or not publishers are party to, or, in fact, facilitate ethical failings in their aggressiveness in creating book deals to attract readership. After all, A Million Little Pieces is reported to have been shopped to some 17 publishers prior to its acceptance by Doubleday, not as a memoir but as a work of fiction, a clear early warning that the work was not a completely truthful account of Frey's own life.
"Is he a liar alone?" Crouch asked, rheorically. "Or was he coerced by Doubleday into becoming a bigger liar? That's the real question." Did a publisher knowingly help a con man con a wider readership for marketing purposes, and what does that say about the industry's ethics?
A publisher's role in the creation of a book title can often have even more ethically troubling dimensions. In addition to turning a blind eye to known irregularities in an author's work, editors, agents, or intermediaries sometimes take a far more proactive role in the actual making of a book, even, as was the case of Harvard student and author Kaavya Viswanathan, to the extent of "packaging" an entire book project and delivering it, fully executed, to a publisher. Nineteen year-old Ms. Viswanathan, it will be remembered, had received a $500,000 book contract and movie deal for her ‘teen-lit' book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, an enviable achievement that soon unraveled when it was discovered that the young author had - "unintentionally and unconsciously," as she described it - borrowed exact language from two novels written for teenage readers by Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. Plagiarism from other books was also subsequently uncovered, leading her publisher Little, Brown to recall the book from bookstore shelves and purge all future editions of the offending passages.
Copying another author's work by an 18 year-old, first-time writer may have been excusable, save for the troubling detail that How Opal Mehta was really the creative product of a ‘team' of authors: Viswanathan herself and Alloy Entertainment, which bills itself as a "creative think tank that develops and produces original books, television series and feature films." Leslie Morgenstein, Alloy's president, admitted that while they claim Viswanathan wrote every word of the novel, "we helped Kaavya conceptualize and plot the book," leading some to wonder how great a role the young author actually played in writing the book - including the instances of plagiarism. In their drive to repeat the commercial successes of other packaging they have done with such series as the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Gossip Girl, the Clique, and the A-List,
Alloy might have exploited the potential of the Harvard sophomore and left her on her own later to answer charges of unethical behavior in the world of letters. We simply do not know.
And therein lies the dilemma faced by the contemporary book publishing industry: where a Maxwell Perkins could nurture, cajole, develop, and protect his stable of writers, and do so with the intention of adding valuable intellectual products to the culture, publishers today have been forced - both by the interest and tastes of the marketplace of readers and the uncertainties of publishing economics - to go in directions earlier editors and publishers might have thought untenable and inappropriate. They have been forced to transform the profession of publishing from one in which ideas were generated and preserved for society's good into a process where the pursuit of profits overshadows this primary, seemingly nobler purpose. That tension shows no sign of subsiding, which means that the hard choice between "culture and mammon" will no doubt continue to have repercussions on the business of bringing books to life.
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, director of Boston University's Program in Book and Magazine Publishing in the School of Professional Education, writes frequently on marketing, politics, housing, religion, and culture.