27 January 2006

The Best Policy

So, it appears that James Frey's little prevarications have really pissed off his original defender, forced his publisher to "take responsibility" for the book, and motivated another publisher to put a disclaimer on another book. This leads to three observations on the perfidy of the publishing industry:
  1. Paranoia reigns supreme, but only once someone else has paid the price. This is not the first time that a unit of Bertelsmann—or even that particular unit—has had problems of this nature (although not so publicly). It's not even the first time this century. Notice, though, that, although several other works from Bertelsmann have been called into question in the last few weeks, only a competitor appears to have taken proactive steps, and only as to one particular work, and only as to one aspect of the work. I'd put a double sawbuck down that at least two-thirds of the questionable memoirs will still be presented to the Library of Congress for cataloging-in-publication as "nonfiction."
  2. Spin control is more important than actually taking responsibility (let alone steps to fix the problem). In some sense, it's a money issue: Maintaining an editorial and support staff with the expertise to deal properly with "mixed truth" books, and "perceptions of the author" books, is a lot more expensive than adding another few S&M dorks, and it's a lot harder to accounting-wise justify the former than the latter. In clichéd terms, it's not just a question of selling the sizzle instead of the steak: It's a preference for selling the sizzle instead of uninspected beef from a herd near a few cases of mad-cow disease.
  3. Somebody is going to have to come up with a new euphemism. "Emotional authenticity" has taken potentially fatal wounds. I shudder to think of what meaningless "justification" for intellectual dishonesty is coming next. Maybe "plagiarism" will become "reflexive-emotive assimilation" or something even less revealing.

This doesn't reflect a "market failure," or a "failure of profit motive." It instead reflects a failure of time. Because of the way that markets have been structured—and, in particular, because of the short horizon applied to financial results, in part due to the relentlessness of the quarterly and annual reports and annual tax filings—long-term thinking is definitely not given the weight it should get in American corporations, let alone in the publishing industry. Nobody has come up with a workable alternative that meets the same antifraud/antimanipulation/antinepotism goals, though, so I suspect we're stuck with it in one form or another.