More fiction posing as nonfiction

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: News, On Publishing, On Reading, On Writing

I suppose it was only a matter of time before it happened again — publishing drama in the form of a publisher pulling a nonfiction book because significant parts of it are, in fact, fiction. This NY Times piece offers details: Charles Pellegrino originally claimed he’d been duped by a source while writing The Last Train From Hiroshima, and then the book’s publisher later learned that other people in the book may not exist, and that the author’s Ph.D. may not exist either.

This is certainly not the first or even the most dramatic revelation of questioned work — remember James Frey? Margaret Selzer? Herman Rosenblat? to name just a few — but it comes at a time when publishing is at a precarious spot in its industry’s history. As novelist Kurt Andersen told the Times: “If book publishers are supposed to be the gatekeepers, tell me exactly what they’re closing the gate to.”

Amid the struggle to get published, my fellow writers and I end up talking a lot about self-publishing, which usually has been viewed as the only option for writers who aren’t “good enough” to find a “real” publisher. Yet many writers are choosing to self-publish these days — and it’s not because they’re not good enough (Steve Almond is certainly good enough – check out his story in this LA Times piece) or because they won’t be able to sell enough books (we all know John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, can sell books, and Publishers Marketplace recently announced that he is self-publishing his latest, Venus On Fire, Mars On Ice). They’re choosing it for other reasons, among them making more money, having more control over the process, and, as Steve Almond puts it: “No marketing plan, no guilt-inducing advance, no royalty statements, no remainders.”

This is not to say that, just because another questionable nonfiction book has slipped through the cracks, we should abandon the publishing world and do it all ourselves — not at all. Self-publishing, of course, is not for everyone — having no marketing plan, for example, is only a good option for someone who already has an audience or has a great deal of experience in book marketing — and in general, having gatekeepers is necessary and good. But for those with great books that can’t sell in today’s market, it’s good to have other options, and slipping under the gate might not be such a bad idea.


  Comments: 2

  1. Mickey, thanks for your comments! In answer to your first question: yes, self-published authors usually do have their work edited — at least, they should. Often a self-publishing company will offer this service (it can be quite expensive), but there are also a lot of freelance editors out there who generally charge less than the self-publishing companies.

    And your second question is a little harder to answer, as it all depends on the book, the publisher, the cost of marketing efforts, etc. From what I’ve learned in watching various writers go through the self-publishing process, you need to be ready to make a substantial investment (anywhere from $2,ooo to $5,000) in editing, book design, cover design, printing, and marketing (which includes review copies and travel, among other expenses) — and so it might take a while to earn a profit. But the nice thing about being self-published is that you as author get all the profits rather than the 10-15 percent a publisher would give you as a royalty — but you do have to cover all these up-front costs yourself, which is the hard part!

  2. The first burning question is: Do self-publishing authors have their work professionally edited? I’d guess only the ones that are already published (like John Gray), who know editors and can afford them.

    Second burning question: Since self-publishers have to do all their own marketing (not a cheap task), what’s the average profit margin after distribution and sales?