Bundle up — the climate for writers is mighty chilly just now

Hello, readers —

Today has been a real learning experience for me, chatting with various experts about my options for defending my memoir. (If you’re just tuning in, check out my post for March 30th for a hypothetical explanation of what’s going on.) It’s beginning to look as though the only way I can stop the people who have held my book in limbo for so many months now by threatening to sue (without ever filing any actual legal paperwork) would be to sue them. I had been hoping to avoid this, for reasons both obvious and not (I had thought for quite some time that these people were my friends, after all), but if you see me holding a bake sale on a street corner, it will be for my legal defense fund.

I wonder: how many blueberry muffins are there in a lawsuit?

I am mentioning this, not just to keep you informed about what is going on in my working life, but for the benefit all of you out there who write about reality, both as memoir and as fiction. The publishing environment has changed radically since the James Frey (A MILLION LITTLE PIECES) scandal; I hope it’s a temporary change, for the sake of writers everywhere, because it has tipped the scale even farther in favor of publishers. Basically, the mood of the industry is pretty hostile to authors right now; this is undoubtedly not the best time to be querying agents with anything based upon real events or people.

To be fair, publishers do unquestionably take risks when they publish fact-based books — after all, anybody can sue anybody for anything, and as I pointed out yesterday, many people, upon seeing their names in print, will automatically assume that they are the protagonists of the story. Few lay readers understand the law well enough to know that a mere difference of opinion about what occurred is not sufficient grounds for a lawsuit; there are many people out there who believe, incorrectly, that hurt feelings are in themselves actionable, and that any mention of oneself in a public forum that is not entirely flattering is slander.

As public relations, most of us accept this without comment. Perhaps it is because we have all grown accustomed to the pro forma protest of the celebrity accused of an affair in a tabloid: the threat to sue has become almost more automatic than the emotion the articles raise. It’s as though the protestors believe that the threat itself were inherent evidence of innocence. It’s not: all it means is that the protesting party can afford a lawyer and/or a publicist.

In the good old days — which, in this context, means anytime before the James Frey story broke — it was a truism of the industry that memoirs inherently generated pre-publication letters of protest, usually from family members. Often, the writers of these angry epistles had not read the book; they just objected to the idea of the family”s proverbial dirty linen being hung out in print. Since so few of these threatening letters ever mutated into actual legal cases, they often were simply shrugged off by publishers.

In the current publishing environment, though, a single protest can be all it takes to derail a book. While this is obviously harmful for everyone who writes, this is very, very bad for memoirists in particular, since the more truthful the author is, generally speaking, the more likely the book is to annoy somebody. With publishing houses now taking seriously threats they would have laughed off five years ago — not because of the prospect of legal expenses, but the possibility of being lambasted in the press, as Random House was over its handling of A MILLION LITTLE PIECES — there is more pressure than ever on authors to make nice.

Unfortunately, making nice and telling the truth are often incompatible. (That’s not just a truism: hypothetically, if I had agreed to an outrageous request to turn the story of my childhood into a rehash of FINDING NEVERLAND, my memoir would have been published a month ago. Hypothetically, I refused.) In the current environment, though, publishers are expecting writers of nonfiction to do both — and in some cases codifying those expectations in contracts that place the legal burdens (and costs) on the people least able to bear them, the writers.

But the fact is, it is the publishers, not the authors, who control how a book is presented to the world — and, generally speaking, it is the presentation, the overall impression the book gives, that engenders protest. Authors don’t write their own marketing copy; the marketing department does, just as the sales department determines how to pitch books to retailers. In my case, I did not even see my book’s title, cover art, or blurb until after all three were already posted on Amazon; I found them accidentally, when I was Googling my own name — in preparation for setting up this blog, in fact.

Imagine my surprise.

The internet, of course, has made reputation making and breaking a very quick thing — something that most publishing houses have been very slow to recognize. More than a century ago, Mark Twain wrote, “A lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get his boots on.” Now, a lie can make it ALL the way around the world before the truth has had a chance to log on. Or, indeed, before the truth is even aware that anyone is speculating about it.

If you have even the vaguest interest in writing a memoir, or indeed, any nonfiction, within the next five years or so, I would HIGHLY urge you to check out the many, many widely divergent opinions currently expressed on the web about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY. Now would be an interesting time to Google it, because no one outside my publishing house has actually read the final version of the book. Yet it is reviewed; it is praised; it is condemned. It was a Book People selection last month, and I am told that the main PKD fan forum has some wildly inaccurate speculation about the book’s content and my motivations in writing it. All, I should point out, without (with the exception of a single interviewer) anyone concerned asking me, the author, question one about it.

It’s all rumor, at this point. Yet it definitely affects my book’s publishing prospects.

In fact, I’m just going to go ahead and apologize right now to all of you for any negative shadows that the controversy over my book is having or will have on good writers querying my agent, editor, or publisher. I would imagine that at the moment, all of them positively cringe when they see a memoir query. I’m really, really sorry about that.

Which leads me to another piece of advice for those of you aspiring to write about true events and people: be aware that right now is, practically speaking, one of the worst times in human history to be pitching a truth-based book to a North American agent or editor. Actually, from what I hear on the writers’ grapevine, editors and publishers are so nervous that it’s not a particularly good time to be trying to pitch any book at all.

This does not mean that you should give up on submitting your work; far from it. But take any rejections you get over the next few months as temporary; you might well get an entirely opposite response from the same agents and editors a year from now.

As a fringe benefit, though, since so many authors have been getting together lately and moaning over the current distrust-the-writer sentiment, it would be a TERRIFIC time to submit a controversial memoir to a writing contest. There are a whole lot of writers-turned-judges out there who would just LOVE to reward a genuinely risk-taking manuscript right about now. Go ahead and enter bravely.

And do, for the sake of your own reputation, when you query, include some indication in your synopsis (or even in your cover letter) of how you can back up any claims you make, if at all possible. This is the time to play up your respectable credentials, if you have them; this is the time to emphasize how much time you spent on background research; this is the time to mention that you have consulted the three best-respected researchers in your field.

Yes, I know: this all seems silly, to those of us who write memoirs. After all, who could possibly be a better authority, or a more credible one, on one’s own life than oneself?

A year ago, I could have answered that question with confidence: no one. However, now that my motivations are evidently the subject of internet-based speculation by people who have never read my work… well, I guess all of us who would publish our own stories are public figures now, available for praise and censure. I suppose I can’t object to that. It just would have been nice to have told my own story my own way first.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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