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What the James Frey A Million Little Pieces incident reveals about ‘real’ publishers

Posted by John Reed on

In an article at my Web site about best-selling financial books, (www.johntreed.com/bestseller.html) I also denounced them for not caring one whit about whether the “nonfiction” books they publish are accurate or give valid advice.

Some readers may have thought I was overstating my case. I refer them to the brouhaha over James Frey’s mega best seller A Million Little Pieces.

Frey, we now know, originally tried to sell the books as a novel—that is—fiction. All the publishers that were approached rejected it.

No problem, he just changed its category to “nonfiction.” Smart marketing move. Doubleday published it. Oprah strongly endorsed it. It sold three million copies and counting.

‘Highly questionable ethics’

In a 1/30/06 Wall Street Journal article titled “Publishers Say Fact-Checking Is Too Costly,” Richard Pine, a partner in the New York literary agency Inkwell Management LLC said that presenting a book as fiction to one publisher and nonfiction to another is “highly questionable ethics.” Actually, notwithstanding Mr. Pine’s congenital timidity, it is not “highly questionable ethics.” It is blatantly unethical.

Whether something is ethical is generally determined by reference to formal codes of ethics. My personal code is:

  1. Tell the truth.
  2. Keep your promises.
  3. Treat others as you want to be treated.

Frey’s agent, Kassie Evashevski of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, violated all three tenets of my ethical code. The book in part gives advice on dealing with substance-abuse problems and was likely relied on by some sufferers.

Perhaps she claims she was misled by Frey. Fine. I’ll believe that when she and her firm give back all the money they made representing him and fire him as a client. Since he has been exposed as a liar, sales of his book have gone back up putting him back on the best-seller list again—the nonfiction best-seller list, of course. Ms. Evashevski did not respond to the Wall Street Journal’s request for a comment.

Do agents even have an ethical code? Someone famously observed that the sincerity of all the agents in Hollywood combined would not fill the navel of a gnat. If agents do have an ethical code, I would expect that sequentially representing the same book as fiction then nonfiction would violate it. If they do not have one, they ought to get one and start enforcing it.

The Smoking Gun Web site

Frey’s lies were exposed by http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0104061jamesfrey1.html.

Oprah’s two, later three, reactions

Oprah was largely responsible for the success of A Million Little Pieces. In October of 2005, she made it her Oprah Winfrey Book Club Selection of the Month.

When the Smoking Gun story hit the media, Oprah said she would continue to recommend it in spite of the fact that, “…some of the facts have been questioned.” “Some of the facts have been questioned!?” The author admitted he lied, Oprah! It has gone way beyond “questioning” of facts.

Then, my 1/27/06 San Francisco Chronicle revealed that Oprah reversed herself on Frey, that she had him and his publisher, Nan Talese of Doubleday, on for an hour and ripped them a new one on live TV. She did this because she was criticized by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen and New York Times columnist Frank Rich and others who condemned Oprah for not caring about the truth. She had those two guys on the same show with Frey and Talese.

At my Web page about Rich Dad Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki, I called upon Oprah to do the same regarding him and his book. After all, with great help from Oprah, he has sold about ten times as many “nonfiction” books as James Frey. As with Frey, the books are false, fail to keep the promises of “nonfiction” made to readers, and give dangerous advice on serious matters affecting people’s lives.

On 5/12/09, Oprah reversed herself a second time and apologized to Frey. Oprah is an airhead flake. Don’t tell me she is really smart as evidenced by her being a billionaire. She has a smart lawyer and she has a, perhaps anti-white, bias in favor of not working for The Man, which happens to be the most lucrative business structure. In other words, she did the right thing, achieving total control, for the wrong reason. Her talent, crying in public, is hardly rare.

She still hasn’t apologized to her viewers for recommending Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad book to them. Maybe she’s skipping the “I was duped” phase and moving right to the “I apologize for admitting I made a mistake the first time” phase.

Can’’t afford to check facts

As its title says, the Wall Street Journal article was about the publishing industry’s claim that its profit margins are not high enough to check the “facts” in its mega-best-selling “nonfiction” books that make millions of dollars for them.

Of course, they do have enough money to advertise the books as “nonfiction” and to brag about the “true stories” they contain.

Another thing they apparently do not have enough money for is to afford a warning label on their ads or book covers that the purported facts contained in the book in question have been checked by no one but the author who is making money and fame from the book and who would lose out on much of that money, if not all of it, if purported facts where revealed to be lies.

Can anyone afford to check facts nowadays? Sure. The national print media and network evening news programs do it all the time. Is this because they have such high profit margins? Actually, they are losing circulation and viewers at an alarming rate in spite of population growth.

And they never have a best-selling book’s profits. Come to think of it, how much did Doubleday make on Frey’s book? They probably will not say. But I’ll make an educated guess that their profit contribution (wholesale price to retailers minus their variable costs of mainly printing and shipping) are about $10 per book. That means their profit contribution from Frey’s three-million seller would be around $30 million. Exactly how much profit do they need to check facts? And isn’t it really obvious that if they had checked the facts on Frey’s book in the beginning, they thereby would have prevented themselves from publishing it and they would be out that $30 million?

In other words, what they really cannot afford is not fact-checking, it’s requiring facts in their nonfiction books.

Doubleday Publisher Nan Talese: hero to her ‘real’ publisher colleagues

According to the Wall Street Journal article, Frey’s publisher received a standing ovation from her colleagues when she returned from her Oprah appearance and a supportive call from Peter Olson, the chief executive of Doubleday’s parent company Bertelsman AG Random House Inc. That would be because Ms. Talese’s colleagues are as amoral and irresponsible as she is.

Talese said she also got more than 500 emails of which the “overwhelming majority have been supportive.” Many other publishers publicly expressed support for Talese and Doubleday and volunteered that they would have published the book as well. Actually, the Journal said they admitted they, too, could have been “duped” by Frey.

You know what? They want to be duped. “Real” publishers have a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy when it comes to lies in nonfiction books. How else to explain why they publish unsafe diets, books that advocate ineffective quack cures for cancer, get-rich-quick books, etc?

I hasten to point out that these people are almost certainly part of the liberal elite who are the first to condemn such behavior when they detect it in, say, the military or Exxon or Wal-Mart. Apparently, being “in publishing” means never having to say you’re sorry about lying or misrepresentation or false advertising.

Actually, Doubleday did issue an apology of sorts. It said, “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’.”

I’ll bet their lawyers will argue in court that they bear absolutely no responsibility whatsoever for what they publish. They have been sued over the book. We’ll see.

And how about that phrase “any unintentional confusion?”

Unintentional!? The SOB who wrote it admitted that he deliberately lied. Furthermore, he admitted that he changed it from fiction to nonfiction because saying that it was not true did not sell. It’s not like he accidentally put it on the nonfiction shelf when stocking a book store’s shelves.

And what about the publisher? They intentionally did not give a damn whether it was true. Given their conscious and long-standing policy of not checking the facts, what did they expect?

And don’t you love their characterization of it as “confusion?” All the editorials and columns about it call it lies, not “confusion.”

I am not going to believe the willingness to “bear responsibility” until their lawyers and executives admit in court that they bear responsibility. Nor will I give them credit for the apology until they accurately describe what they did, namely, publish a pack of lies and make millions doing it. They need to recall the book and refund the money to those who bought it. Oh, wait a minute! That’s the sort of remedy they only apply to their political enemies, not to themselves.

Lawsuit against Frey’s publisher

A buyer of the Frey book has filed a class-action suit against its publisher Random House and Doubleday. Good! I hope the author, agent, and retailers are also named as defendants.

It’s about time someone cracked down on the dishonesty of “real” publishers. The First Amendment prevents them from being sued about anything (other than libel or invasion of privacy) that Frey said in the book. But it does not prevent them from being sued for what they said about the book to sell it. Apparently, they are indeed being sued for false advertising and misrepresentation sorts of causes of action.

The lawyer is Marc Bern of Napoli, Bern, Ripka LLC in New York City.

New contract clause

The Journal article quotes another agent as saying that publishers ought to add a clause to their contract with the author saying that the facts in a nonfiction book are true to the best of the author’s knowledge.

Say what!?

You mean to tell me there was not already such a clause in every nonfiction author-publisher contract!?

That should tell you all you need to know about how interested “real” publishers are in the truth in their “nonfiction” books. That should also be good evidence against these clowns in their court case with Mr. Bern.

Three new books

Not only would other publishers have “been duped” by Frey, one, Pearson PLC’s Riverhead Books now has a best seller with Frey’ second book My Friend Leonard and has agreed to publish his next two books as well. They say they are “reviewing the situation.” With whom do you suppose they are reviewing it? An ethics professor? Or their accountants, lawyers, marketing guys, and board of directors? And do you think they might be influenced by the mob of other publishers outside Frey’s door holding “Dupe us!” signs?

A great many would-be authors resist my recommendation that they self-publish. They want to be published by a “real” publisher instead. I gotta news flash for you. “Real” publishers are dishonest. Not only will they lie to you about the veracity of their nonfiction books, they will lie about the advantages and disadvantages of using them instead of self-publishing, they will lie about the amount of royalties you will get from them, they will lie about the value to you of going on an arduous author tour, and they will use “Hollywood accounting,” which is to say a pack of lies, to caluclate what royalties they claim they owe you. They will take too big of a cut from the sales of your book and they will do too little to promote it.

Don’t believe me? Ask another author with some experience with “real” publishers.

If the facts in your book are real, and you care about such things, get real. Stay away from publishers who don’t care whether their authors lie and stay with one who does, namely, you. After the Frey incident, any author who associates with Random House or Doubleday is implicitly saying they do not care about the truth or about associating with companies that do not care about it. 


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