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Turbulent year for books was a page-turner

December 29, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It started off with bestselling author James Frey admitting his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," was in fact a work of fiction, and ended with celebrity publisher Judith Regan getting fired for allegedly making anti-Semitic comments after her proposed O.J. Simpson confessional book-TV deal got shot down.

In between came charges that 19-year-old Harvard novelist Kaavya Viswanathan had lifted passages from a rival chick-lit author, and hotly disputed allegations that Ian McEwan, one of the most respected names in modern literary fiction, may have been guilty of plagiarism.

It was that kind of year in publishing -- one the literary world would like to forget.

"A lot of this is pretty tawdry stuff," said James Atlas, biographer of Saul Bellow and a longtime editor. "It was, in so many ways, a year of miscreancy in the American book business."

In 2006, the once-genteel publishing industry learned to its dismay that it could no longer escape the relentless media coverage and Internet scrutiny that have become part of modern life. Although the book world has had scandals in the past, the furious pace and intensity of negative publicity in 2006 seemed to buffet publishers harder than ever.

Among those hit was Ira Silverberg, a New York literary agent who was stunned to learn last January that his client J.T. Leroy -- a bestselling author believed to be an HIV-positive teenage prostitute -- was in fact a 40-year-old San Francisco woman who had concealed her identity for years.

"I was duped, it made me question my faith in publishing, and I was bracing for a stretch of bad media coverage," Silverberg said. But then, within 48 hours, yet another scandal broke in the book world: This time it was Frey's turn, and the ensuing uproar -- which included his groveling mea culpa on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" -- quickly superseded the news about Leroy.

Despite this wave of negative publicity, many observers insist that the book world continued to thrive in 2006. Although sales were generally flat, quality fiction and nonfiction shared spots on the bestseller lists along with more commercial works, and books continued to find new customers in outlets such as Starbucks, gift shops and other venues. Still, it was a year that many in the literary trade will remember as a time of scandal and controversy.

Among the contretemps:

* Even though he was exonerated, reporters from around the world converged on "Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown's trial in London, where plaintiffs claimed he had lifted material from nonfiction sources.

* There were allegations of plagiarism against former President Carter; critics said two maps in his new book on the Middle East conflict were taken from another author, without giving him credit. A spokesperson for publisher Simon & Schuster said, "We stand behind the book fully."

* In the spring, charges surfaced that Augusten Burroughs' runaway bestseller "Running With Scissors," a memoir, contained major distortions and invented material.

* The annus horribilis ended with the firing of Regan, publisher of ReganBooks. She was terminated after allegedly making anti-Semitic remarks to a HarperCollins attorney about her plans to publish yet another controversial book -- this one a "fictional biography" of New York Yankee legend Mickey Mantle that included unflattering (and invented) sex scenes between the slugger and Marilyn Monroe. Regan has denied making anti-Semitic comments and has vowed to file suit against HarperCollins over the termination.

Five ago, Silverberg noted, the book world didn't experience such scrutiny, "and now anything even vaguely scandalous is going to get picked up and amplified. We live in a culture hungry for the scandal du jour, and then the next one. We'll see more unflattering episodes in the future."

Others were more blunt, calling 2006 a turning point. Roxanne J. Coady, owner of a Madison, Conn., bookstore and co-editor of "The Book That Changed My Life," said: "There's just no place for the book world to hide anymore. Any idea that our business is somehow above the fray seems ridiculous now. We are as vulnerable as any other business."

Financial temptations

For some, this is inevitable in a corporate-run publishing world that is pressured as never before to show increasing profits. Publishers pay large advances to authors who, they hope, will connect with a public hungry for sensational material. In their haste to find the next bestselling memoirist, the next "Da Vinci Code," there are bound to be more incidents in which writers (and publishers) are caught fabricating stories, stealing material from others or pushing projects in dreadfully bad taste.

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