Thursday, March 06, 2008

Embarrassed Publisher Works Fast to Erase Tracks of Fake Memoir
By Edward Nawotka

March 5 (Bloomberg) -- Dishonest memoirists are the publishing industry's equivalent of juiced athletes. Incentives to cheat continue to outweigh the fear of getting caught.

In the latest scandal, Margaret B. Jones, the half-Native American, slum-raised author of the L.A. gang memoir ``Love and Consequences,'' turns out to be Margaret Seltzer, a white product of the upper middle class. And her book, subtitled, ``A Memoir of Hope and Survival,'' is largely make-believe.

``Love and Consequences'' was published just last week to widespread praise. Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group, had printed about 24,000 copies, of which 19,000 were shipped to stores.

Now the deeply embarrassed publisher is moving fast to control the damage. The book's page on the Penguin Web site has been deleted, the author's book tour has been canceled and, most significantly, the books are being recalled from bookstores.

In addition, Riverhead is defending itself from charges of sloppy fact-checking. According to a statement from executive director of publicity Marilyn Ducksworth released yesterday:
``Prior to publication the author provided a great deal of evidence to support her story: photographs, letters; parts of Peggy's (i.e., Seltzer's) life story in another published book; Peggy's story had been supported by one of her former professors; Peggy even introduced the agent to people who misrepresented themselves as her foster siblings.''

Strange System

The cost of recalling a book is tricky to estimate, given that returning unsold merchandise is a linchpin of the book- distribution system.

Since the Depression, bookstores have been able to send unsold books back to publishers for credit, which they then use to purchase new books. The returned books are either sold back to bookstores as cut-priced ``remainders'' or pulped -- as, presumably, all returned copies of ``Love and Consequences'' will be.

Penguin will cover the cost of shipping back the returns, which could be significant. The financial impact on bookstores is likely to be minor. At Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California, promotional director Jennifer Ramos had ordered 37 copies of the book in anticipation of Seltzer's scheduled reading this Thursday.

``Her cancellation is no big deal,'' Ramos says. ``Events get canceled all the time. We'll just return the books as we normally do. It won't have any financial impact on us at all.''
Anyone who bought the book can get a full refund, upon request, by returning the book to the store where it was purchased.

Another Liar

In recent years falsehoods in a number of high-profile memoirs have come to light. Only last week the Belgian author Misha Defonseca confessed that her Holocaust memoir ``Surviving With Wolves'' is ``nothing but pure fiction.'' She did not really sup on fresh kill with a friendly wolf mommy and her cubs.

The most famous instance, of course, is James Frey's Oprah- ordained 2003 bestseller ``A Million Little Pieces.'' After it was revealed in 2006 that significant portions of it had been fabricated, Random House agreed to refund as much as $2.35 million to readers who felt they had been bilked.

As of October 2007, only 1,536 people had filed claims. Both Random and Frey agreed to donate additional monies to charity. (Coincidentally, Frey's editor, Sean McDonald, and Seltzer's editor, Sarah McGrath, are now colleagues at Riverhead.)

John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, doesn't see an endemic problem.
``There have been thousands upon thousands of memoirs published in recent years,'' he says, ``and so far only a handful of them have turned out to be demonstrably false.''

`It Makes Me Wonder'

Barbara Hoffert, an NBCC board member and book-review editor of Library Journal, the trade publication that vets books for libraries, is less sanguine.

``I guess we thought that after the James Frey scandal, no one would try this again,'' she says. ``It makes me wonder if I need to tell my reviewers to start double-checking the memoirs they're reading.''

Columbia University Journalism School professor Samuel Freedman charges current book editors with having absorbed too much postmodern literary theory: ``They have been taught that all truth is subjective and contested anyway. They're all too willing to suspend their critical faculties and not do due diligence.''

He adds that editors need to demand more from their writers and themselves.
``Editing is more than just line editing,'' he says. ``It also requires the editor to ask the writer, `Where's the corroborating evidence? Where are the other documentary sources for this?'''

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