Amidst the James Frey controversy, the finger pointing, the mudslinging and the almighty Oprah/Harpo Empire on the warpath, a quiet nervousness and discomfort lingers within several of us in the publishing/writing business, including myself. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, but negative public perception can last a lifetime. Can an industry as volatile as Publishing survive such a brutal attack? How do new demands placed on the mammoth publishing houses trickle down to some of us meager writers. Not all of us get six figure advances. Only a handful of published authors make it to the coveted Oprah Book Club, The NY Times Best Seller etc. Will new writers, without an already established relationship with an agent or editor have yet another series of hurdles to jump through? Will pressures to rely on costly fact checkers increase the cost of publishing a single work and thus the amount of books that are released on the stands?
I just finished reading an excellent article in the New York Observer (see link in title) that looks at several of the issues surrounding the whole James Frey escapade. I like this article because it goes beyond attacking Oprah or James and takes a look at the larger picture. It also raises some other questions about the relationship between Frey and his former editor Sean McDonald who has handled his last books and has yet to comment on any of this.
Personally I feel like this is the exception. Here you have an example of two people who knowingly manipulated the public out of sheer greed. My favorite quote in the article, “Nobody’s in publishing to make money. You’re putting books out there because you’re on a kind of mission, because you believe you have a taste in literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, and you want to share that, and you want to publish books that change people’s lives.”
This is true for me as a writer. I am not pursuing this career option because I want to be rich. Yes, I’d like to be able to support myself. But the reality is it could very well take me three years to make my current salary at a non-profit organization!!! So it’s not for the money and I truly believe that those who do make a successful fulltime career out of writing deserve it. I write for the exact same reasons stated above. Because I believe that I have good taste, good talent, and that it is worthy of being shared with others, because I want others to experience the same rush of joy I get when I purchase/read/finish a book by my favorite author.
Despite everything that has happened I don’t blame Doubleday/Random House. I might be a bit niave, but at this point in time I think they were manipulated like everyone else. How do you defend against that? One publisher gave an example in the article, the economics of hiring underpaid 20-year-olds to look up facts: “How much can one person employed at $35,000 (in NYC) a year fact-check—10,000 words a week? That means they can do four 125,000-word books a year, so that adds $8,000 to $10,000 in costs to each book. It if sells three million copies that’s no problem, but many books sell only 5,000 copies, which would be a burden.”
It’s a complicated and messy subject with a complicated and yet to be defined solution. And in they end…after the media frenzy dies down a bit who knows what will happen. I don’t think Oprah is going to cancel her book club. I think at this point it would be the worst thing they could do. It will only draw more attention to the situation. If they just sit tight and stop trying to spin everything people would move on. If anything this could make her book club more successful. But perhaps it means more stringent selection policies/practices on their part.