Friday, March 07, 2008

Mags Jones/Selzer and the State of Publishing

Like the Judith Regan story, this one is already getting tired, even though it's less than a week old. And yet, after following a link from today's email from Shelf Awareness, I feel the need to say a bit more.

The link was to an article by Ben Yagoda on Slate, entitled "Believe it or Not: Why Memoir Fabulists Getting Caught Means the System is Working." It's an interesting piece worth reading, even if the writer is in fact writing a book on this topic... for Riverhead! He discloses that he shares a publisher with poor Maggie Jones nee Selzer. But anyway, he makes the point that a friend and I were discussing at lunch this week, regarding fact-checking by publishers:
In the wake of the Frey and now the Jones scandals, there's been hand-wringing about the need for fact-checking—or lie-detector tests or something!—at publishing houses. But you're never going to stop people from making stuff up. It is a fact of human nature that a substantial number of people have the capacity and inclination to lie.
Well... fair enough. As an Editor, I can't be sure my author isn't lying. In the Riverhead case, they even had the author sign an extra statement assuring it was all true (though this is of course in author contracts anyway). I don't go out and fact-check. How could I, for a personal narrative? All I can do is ask enough questions myself and look for red flags.

Yagoda supports my initial point on this case made earlier this week:
Moreover, in today's competitive literary market, editors and other gatekeepers want to believe. That's in part because people are naturally credulous (the alternative—reflexive skepticism—is unattractive for many people to contemplate) and in part because the rewards are so great.

The Editor and the Publicist and the Marketing department all want the most outrageous, interesting story - which Yagoda puts in some historical context - so perhaps they overlook the most glaring of exaggerations, closing their eyes to them while praying they're true. "Please let the dad have really snorted coke off the girls' barbie dolls... please please please...."

Yagoda's ultimate point is that the public shame that occurs is fact-checking enough, but of course it isn't always quite this public. I guess he's unconcerned with smaller books that go out unchallenged. I mean isn't this just availability heuristics at work? Isn't this just avoiding the bigger question of ethics, not to mention the desperation in publishing?

The desperation angle, I believe, is this: big commercial houses need more and more outrageous product, as Yagoda points out, so editors may just be encouraging this kind of book, if not directly these kinds of lies. At the same time, chain bookstores, as reported yesterday, are carrying fewer books, face out!, thereby tightening the space available. Now big houses already have this problem, as I hear from authors, wherein they drop a book/author close to publication if it doesn't have enough potential, and some houses mean "sales of 50,000+" when they think potential. So this author with a book that very well could sell 20,000 copies isn't prioritized, isn't even called back, because the publicist et al are focusing on the Today Show, Oprah, NY Times front page, whatever for The Big Book.

So I could hope... I could dream... I can envision more of these giant lies being exposed, as Yagoda says happens, for a number of houses, crippling them enough to allow some smaller players into the fray. But of course, I look at Riverhead and I think they won't really be hurt. Sure they have a whole bunch of copies of Love & Consequences lying around, but they can play with numbers and make it all okay. Maybe an editorial assistant will get the axe, but the house won't be really wounded.

I better keep scrounging for my optimism, I'm sure I can find it somewhere...

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