Questions for Others in Frey Scandal
In all of the attention focused on James Frey and his book "A Million Little Pieces" in recent weeks, two main characters in the drama — Mr. Frey's literary agent and the book's editor — have largely escaped scrutiny.
But yesterday, in the wake of Mr. Frey's appearance on the Oprah Winfrey television program on Thursday, a number of people in the publishing business suggested it was time for Kassie Evashevski, Mr. Frey's agent, and Sean McDonald, who edited both "A Million Little Pieces" and Mr. Frey's follow-up, "My Friend Leonard," to talk about their roles in selling and shaping the books.
"I want to know, where is Kassie in this?" said Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic Books, in a telephone interview. "What did she know and when did she know it? And how could Sean McDonald not have had questions about this book?"
Mr. McDonald edited both "A Million Little Pieces" for Doubleday, and "My Friend Leonard" after moving to the Riverhead Books imprint of the Penguin Group.
Nan A. Talese, who heads an imprint of Random House's Doubleday division, appeared with Mr. Frey to defend the editing of the book, but she did not work closely with Mr. Frey on it. As the publisher, however, she bears the ultimate responsibility for it.
Ms. Evashevski and Mr. McDonald have not returned repeated phone calls seeking comment since the Smoking Gun Web site first reported on Mr. Frey's deceptions on Jan. 8; neither responded to additional requests for comment yesterday. Penguin said in a statement on Thursday that it was discussing internally what to do about both "My Friend Leonard" and a recently signed contract for two additional books by Mr. Frey.
The questions about how publishers should deal with the truth or falsity of the books they publish are likely to continue to resound through the book business. Yesterday, publishers, literary agents and booksellers said that, in the wake of Ms. Winfrey's condemnation of Mr. Frey and Doubleday, they expected memoirs and other works of nonfiction to come under increasing scrutiny before and after publication.
Some publishers said they would continue to rely on authors and their literary agents to stand behind their works, even as they occasionally press them for details on some of their claims.
Mr. Entrekin said that the economics of publishing would not allow for hiring fact checkers to verify everything in an author's book. "If you sell three and a half million copies, it is an insignificant cost," he said. "But most works of nonfiction sell from 5,000 to 50,000 copies. Then it becomes a prohibitive cost." Because of that, "we have to go into business with people who we trust," he said.
"There are absolutely going to be instances where you see it necessary to hire a fact checker or researcher," said John Sterling, the president and publisher of Henry Holt & Company. "But I don't see in the foreseeable future that any publishing house is going to hire a full-time fact checker to go through every single book published." Whether or not fact checkers are hired, is not the relevant point, Mr. Entrekin said. Many memoirs are already scrutinized by a publisher's legal department in order to make sure that no one is defamed or libeled. As part of that process, "questions inevitably come up," Mr. Entrekin said, adding, "If the author can't answer those questions, it sends up a red flag, and a good editor will know to ask the questions."
Geoff Shandler, the editor in chief of Little, Brown & Company, a division of the Time Warner Book Group, noted yesterday that even teams of able fact checkers have not been able to ensure accuracy at magazines, newspapers or television news programs. "There will always be the chance that those few writers truly determined to fool their publisher and the public will sometimes get away with it," he said.
And it is not clear that the public always cares. Kate Anderson, 30, an elementary school counselor, was at a Borders bookstore in Atlanta yesterday, buying the book on her day off. Her book club had recently decided to read it, despite Mr. Frey's admitted falsehoods.
"I've never taken autobiographies or memoirs at face value," she said, or assumed they were 100 percent true. "I've heard it was so good, despite the inaccuracies," she added.
At the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, an independent bookstore in Winnetka, Ill., a suburb north of Chicago, the store manager, Jay Schwandt, said only one person had tried to return "A Million Little Pieces" since it was revealed early this month that substantial portions of it were fabricated.
"We've been selling it left and right," Mr. Schwandt said. "It has not been a problem here. We just got 20 more in today, and they'll be gone by the end of the weekend."
While it was too soon to tell if Thursday's encounter with Ms. Winfrey would l slow sales of the book, Doubleday said yesterday it had decided that future editions of "A Million Little Pieces" will not carry the Oprah's Book Club logo. The company had previously said it would include both a publisher's and an author's note about the factual discrepancies in the book.
During a second segment of Ms. Winfrey's show, which ran yesterday on "Oprah After the Show," on the Oxygen cable channel, Mr. Frey said, as he has in the past, that he and Ms. Evashevski, who works at Brillstein-Grey Entertainment in Los Angeles, had offered his book to some publishers as a novel and to others as a memoir.
"The book went to different publishing houses as different things," Mr. Frey said, according to a transcript of the show provided by Ms. Winfrey's production company. "It did go to some as fiction and some as nonfiction."
Asked if the same agent was telling one publisher the book was fiction and another that it was true, Mr. Frey replied, "All through the same agent, yes." That remark drew a collective sigh of disappointment from the audience.
In the "After the Show" segment, Ms. Talese said that her company always understood that Mr. Frey's manuscript was intended as a memoir and that she would not have published it as a novel. To which Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar and professor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism program in St. Petersburg, Fla., replied, "The fact that you would not publish it as a novel is influencing writers everywhere: How can I make a million dollars?"
Mr. Frey, whose book has sold more than two million copies, and perhaps more than three million since Ms. Winfrey picked it for her club, said that he initially received a small advance. "The motivation was never, ever, ever money," he said. "And frankly, I have always, since the first penny I've gotten, given away about 15 percent of the income I get from the book to treatment centers."
Aaron Curtis, the buyer at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., said he did not feel duped by the book, but thought it should have been promoted as a novel. "It's still a good book," he said. "It loses something knowing a lot of it is fabricated, but it doesn't make it a bad book — just different."
Carolyn Marshall contributed reporting fromSan Francisco for this article, and David Bernstein from Chicago, Brenda Goodman from Atlanta and Terry Aguayo from Miami.