The whole truth: Critics say more must be done to ensure that books labeled as nonfiction are just that
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Publishing-industry veteran Nan Talese was excoriated on television by Oprah Winfrey on Jan. 26 for publishing James Frey's 2003 A Million Little Pieces, a best-selling memoir about the author's struggle to overcome drug dependency that he has since admitted is partly fictitious.
But the next morning, 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 e-mails over the last few days, and the overwhelming majority have been supportive,'' said 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 Talese and Random House, saying they would have published A Million Little Pieces as well and could have been duped just as easily. Unlike journalists, publishers have never seen it as their purview to verify that the information in nonfiction books is true. Editors and publishers say the profit margins in publishing don't allow for hiring fact-checkers. Instead, they rely on authors to be honest, and on their legal staffs to avoid libel suits. ''An author brings a manuscript saying it represents the truth, and that relationship is one of trust,'' said Talese.
But now there is a growing chorus inside and outside the industry calling for publishers to take more steps to validate the authenticity of works that are marketed as nonfiction. ''This is a breach of ethics, and who addresses that, whether it's the editor, the agent or the publisher's legal counsel, is yet to be determined,'' said Lorraine Shanley, a principal in the industry consulting firm Market Partners International Inc.
On Jan. 27, plaintiff's attorney Marc Bern said he filed a lawsuit against Random House and its Doubleday imprint in U.S. District Court in Manhattan charging that the publishers misrepresented that book as nonfiction. His client, California resident Karen Futernick, alleges in the suit that she purchased A Million Little Pieces on that basis but that the defendants ''failed to conduct a reasonable investigation or inquiry regarding the truthfulness or accuracy'' of the material. Bern said he will seek more than $50 million in damages.
Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, declined to comment on the suit because the company hasn't seen it.
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,'' said James Atlas, president of Atlas Books LLC and the author of My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor's Tale, a memoir published last year by News Corp.'s HarperCollins imprint. ''Publishers will scrutinize far more closely what they publish, especially in the realm of memoirs. But short of having some kind of honor code, I don't see what can really be done except to exercise far greater vigilance.''
Some do. Jeff Kleinman, an agent with Folio Literary Management, said publishers could add a clause to the author's warranty section in their contracts, stating that to the best of the writer's knowledge the facts in the book are true. ''The point being, if the author's found to egregiously misrepresent the facts, the author could be sued for breach of contract,'' said Kleinman via e-mail. ''Wouldn't that be a lot simpler than asking an agent, or even a publisher, to verify and fact-check every book?''
Some authors note that the opportunity to stretch the truth is far greater in memoirs than in nonfiction books that cover well-known public events and people. ''There's a built-in checking in that kind of business. It's to a certain extent adversarial,'' said Richard Reeves, the author of 11 books and a visiting professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. ''But when somebody is writing about their own life, there is no natural adversary or interested party who will come after them. That's why some of these things happen.''
Other nonfiction authors say the Frey incident illustrates that publishers in general are devoting far more resources to marketing books than editing them. ''There's less editorial process now, dramatically, compared to 25 years ago,'' said David Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest and numerous other titles. ''All the money goes into marketing to get books onto television.'' He said publishers' desire to get authors onto broadcasts such as Winfrey's has even changed the type of book that publishers want. ''A fiction writer can't do that, but a memoirist can,'' he said.
A Million Little Pieces, Winfrey's book club selection for October, has more than 3 million copies in print in North America. After the book's veracity was challenged last month, it went back onto hardcover best-seller lists and continues among the top best-selling paperbacks in most retail outlets.
Frey said on ''Larry King Live'' that he and his agent initially shopped A Million Little Pieces to other publishers as a novel and were turned down. In an interview, Talese said she never was told that the book had been offered originally as fiction.
Richard Pine, a partner in the New York literary agency InkWell Management LLC, said presenting the book as fiction to one publisher and nonfiction as another is ''highly questionable ethics.''
Frey declined to comment for this story. His literary agent, Kassie Evashevski at Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, didn't return a request for comment.