Friday, January 13, 2006

Pending Change in Status 

Fraudulent authors are a problem and embarrassment for book publishers. Usually the issue is plagiarism, but there is also creative invention -- lying, that is. This might be the case with an author of a best seller who was outed by The Smoking Gun a few days ago. It turns out the fellow's turbulent life might not have been so exciting.

What interests me about the incident is what the publisher, Doubleday and Anchor Books, is doing about it from a PR perspective. It is offering refunds to readers. This step has created a PR case study because on the one hand, the publisher stands publicly behind the author and on the other, it is giving your money back, if you think the book is telling tall tales. So, if I understand the situation, it goes something like this. Read the book and if you don't like it return it. Doesn't that strike you of similar return policies for retailers, such as department stores? Take the dress home, try it on and if you don't like it, return it. The difficulty with publishing, of course, is that once you've read a book, there is less reason to keep it unless you like to stack it in your library.

There is a second and more serious issue for the publisher, and it is reputational. Doubleday and Anchor books cannot afford to have this happen too many times, but in an internet age when just about anything can be looked up online, there is greater demand for accuracy. The Smoking Gun performs a useful service in cross-checking claims, but it is by no means the only online entity that does so. Bloggers by the thousands do the same. This means publishers may have to return to a skill that has largely been lost -- editing. Having written two books, I can tell you authors don't get much help from editors nor any cross-checking. I could have made up sections of my texts, and none would have been the wiser. I didn't, but it concerns me that publishers would take such reputational risks.


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