Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Call the Talese, They're Trying to Steal My Sales!

originally posted AM February 1

Our Story So Far: Nan Talese is James Frey's editor, and she went on the Oprah Purgatario to explain the publishing business. I don't know if she was booed, but someone wrote that Oprah gave her a dirty look when her cell phone chimed. To keep you up to date on the zeitgeist, Oprah was criticized for backing Frey in a call to Larry King. Then she was applauded for apologizing and going after Frey on her own show. Now the predictable backlash has begun, and Oprah is getting criticized for holding a public stoning, humiliating Frey and his editor, and not listening to Their Side.

So here's how a Wall Street Journal article (Yes! This is today's free one! Oh thank you thankyou WSJ!) begins:

Last Thursday, publishing-industry veteran Nan Talese was excoriated on television by Oprah Winfrey for publishing James Frey's 2003 "A Million Little Pieces," a bestselling memoir about the author's struggle to overcome drug dependency that he has since admitted is partly fictitious.But on Friday morning, Ms. Talese walked into 22nd-floor offices in Midtown Manhattan to a standing ovation from her colleagues. Soon afterward, she received a call of support from Peter Olson, chief executive of Bertelsmann AG's Random House Inc. publishing arm.

"I've gotten more than 500 emails over the last few days, and the overwhelming majority have been supportive," says Ms. Talese whose imprint, Nan A. Talese, is part of Random House's Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group. Indeed, many members of the publishing industry have rallied around Ms. Talese and Random House, saying that they would have published "A Million Little Pieces" as well and could have been duped just as easily.

The WSJ story is ostensibly about how it's too expensive for poor poor pitiful publishers to fact check their books. Not everyone in publishing agrees that nothing can or should be done, however. Some publishers say the "Million Little Pieces" incident may well result in some changes in how books are vetted. "The entire process will have to be rethought," says James Atlas, president of Atlas Books LLC [followed by a plug for Atlas' last book.]

Full disclosure: Many years ago I had a very short meeting with Nan Talese, when she was an editor at a different publishing house. It was a courtesy to one of her (fiction, acknowleded that is) writers who I knew. I waited around, got to sit down long enough to hear her dis everything I'd done and everything I proposed to do, thanked her very much and left.

I also used to know James Atlas, and I believe the last time I saw him I was pitching story ideas when he was an editor at the NY Times Magazine. He was more positive about the ideas but when it came time to assign, Atlas shrugged.

Also, I must warn you that reading this blog or anything else on your computer can cause headaches, heartaches and acid indigestion. A small number of readers have suffered seizures and required medical attention. Others have dipped into prolonged depression, puncutated by anxiety and anger, leading to reading a lot of psychology books and babbling on blogs. If symptoms persist, tough shit, you're not covered.

Now where was I? Right---the story quotes others pointing out various relevant factors: the much larger marketing budgets for some books which cut into editing resources for all books, and even the Power of Oprah as a key factor in what kinds of books get published. Implying that Frey wouldn't have gotten on the show if he'd called his book fiction, as he apparently did until other publishers passed on it.

But none of this bothers Nan Talese. She goes right from harvesting applause, phone calls and e-mails to a working lunch with--who else?--James Frey, as they go over wording to be added to new copies of his book, pointing out in the best possible way that it's apparently a pack of lies (although on Oprah, Frey reportedly had problems remembering what was and what wasn't the truth, if any. )

And here's her bottom line (via WSJ):

Last week, the publisher issued a statement saying, "We bear a responsibility for what we publish, and apologize to the reading public for any unintentional confusion surrounding the publication of 'A Million Little Pieces.'" In an interview, Ms. Talese said, "We will continue to print the book as long as there is public demand for it."

We bear "a" responsibility? Apologize for any "unintentional confusion surrounding the publication"? What is that supposed to mean? There was no confusion surrounding the publication. It was published satisfactorily, well enough to get in stores and sell three million copies. The problem is with the words in the book, and its author, who shows signs of being a pathological liar.

But the last part is very clear. "We will continue to print the book as long as there is public demand for it." Makes it sound like a public service. Here's the book, judge for yourself, we won't be a party to censorship. Right. And because we're so sincere, we're giving the book away free.

Not exactly. They didn't say that, of course. Frey may have been disgraced and suffered an hour of humiliation, but he's rich. And absolutely no one is asking him to give back the money. Because that might lead to Nan Talese and Random House being asked to give back the money. This is America. Ain't nobody going to give back no money, pardner. And I ain't lyin. Really.

Another Random House editor is quoted in the story saying he"expects that the future reception for first-time memoirists could be different, especially 'those with highly melodramatic, uncorroborated life narratives.'" What an ironist. Frey has killed the memoir market for awhile, except for his own books. But the implication is clearly that when faced with "highly melodramatic" life narratives, those with integrity and an actual sense of responsibility exercise editorial skepticism. But then there are those who read with greed, and the ease of exploiting paying readers is the chief if not the only deciding factor.

I mean, what would happen if you expressed doubts and he took the book elsewhere? Or if you checked into it a little and found out it wasn't true---that the truth was not nearly so gripping and un-putdownable as the lies? You certainly don't want to put yourself in that position.

And clearly this is something that Nan Talese understands, along with apparently everyone she knows.

No comments: