It began with a simple request for a picture.
The A Million Little Pieces scandal, which engulfed the publishing industry last week, all began when the Smoking Gun decided that James Frey's appearance on the Oprah book club had made him enough of a celebrity to request his mug shot.
The Smoking Gun inadvertently opened up a Pandora's Box, exposing the memoir genre to the intense rigors of public scrutiny. Industry watchers were left to determine whether and how this would affect the reputation of Frey, the publishing industry, and Oprah's involvement in promoting and discussing contemporary authors.
It turns out that James Frey, in writing his memoirs of drug addiction, violence, and general despair, embellished or fabricated some of the events. Soon, it seemed like every working author, editor, publisher, and agent was commenting on various news programs, articles, and websites, debating the lifespan of the controversy.
"Are we going to be talking about this for awhile?" asked an anonymous agent. "Sure, it's a gossip industry."
"Sometimes [scandals] are just the publishing industry bickering, but not so much in the case," says Ron Hogan, co-writer of MediaBistro.com's literary blog Galley Cat.
The reason for that, Hogan says, is that your average reader might feel betrayed.
"The man presented himself and his life story one way and people reacted to the book believing it's his life story," Hogan says. Some people may wonder, "What do I do now that [I know] it's not real?"
But not everyone agreed.
"The media will care for about a week, but no [reader] really cares who James Frey is," says Ben Goldstein, book editor of Giant Magazine. "If you're reading a memoir by an anonymous writer, you're just looking for entertainment."
The story soon scattered in many different directions. People compared Frey's situation to the lingering questions of whether author JT Leroy was real or a composite character. Others speculated on how it would affect his movie deal for the adaptation of the book. CNN seized upon the fact that Random House was giving refunds, but only to those books purchased directly from the publishing house. Former heroin user and writer Seth Mnookin waxed on the rehab fabrications on Slate.com, comparisons about the subjectivity of truth in the Bush Administration were bandied about, and blogs and websites filled in the rest with links and musings.
Frey soon appeared on Larry King Live, saying, "There's a great debate about memoir and about what should be most properly served, the story or some form of journalistic truth. Memoirs don't generally come under the type of scrutiny that mine has."
The controversy, combined with the Leroy situation, called into question whether readers were willing to purchase novels that were conjured up from imagination, rather than memoirs where the work at least partially came from personal experience.
The anonymous agent says the problem isn't with the audience, but rather the promotional opportunities for the book's author.
"If you want a first fiction author on any radio station in New York and San Francisco and you produce middle-aged women who created it all," you're going to be out of luck, the agent said. "When you're trying to get attention for a book, you need something or someone interesting and captivating."
But the biggest promotional force in publishing today is Oprah Winfrey, whose book club selections shoot up to the top of best seller lists. Before the show, the New York Observer's Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote a piece titled "In Frey Fabrication, Publishers Only Care If Mt. Oprah Blows," wondering what Oprah would say, now that the veracity of the book she championed had been called into question. Mt. Oprah did not wait long to issue her thoughts, appearing on Larry King's program to offer more reassurances than condemnations.
"I am disappointed by this controversy surrounding A Million Little Pieces' because I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work," Winfrey told King. But "...the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book."
Hogan says that the Oprah reassurance "totally saved his ass."
When Jonathan Franzen rebuffed Oprah's invitation to go on her show to discuss his book, The Corrections, in 2001, Oprah soon after walked away from the book club for a couple of years, returning tentatively, by suggesting books from deceased authors like Tolstoy and John Steinbeck.
"She said, 'I don't need this aggravation.' There was that period for a couple of years where you couldn't count on this one book [selling very well] every month," Hogan says. "Having lost that impact once, some elements of the book publishing community are hypersensitive."
"No one wants to piss off Oprah because she sells a lot of books," the agent says. "She's smart enough to say you have to change how you do business. But she didn't say you have to fact-check everything."
The agent brings up a seemingly parallel scandal of Jayson Blair at the New York Times. Other comparisons could be made for the CBS News story on President Bush's National Guard service. In journalism, the scandals never just affected the guilty party. Editors and paper's reputations were besmirched; media reporters probed institutional failures; and movies documenting duplicity were released.
Yet the industry watchers PRWeek spoke to did not expect any heads to roll.
The unidentified agent felt that the only entity that would be affected by the scandal was Frey, but not because the public hold any lingering grudge. The agent suggested the scandal might negatively affect Frey's movie deal.
"When his novel comes out, you can predict how many reviewers will bring this up," Hogan says.
Goldstein points out that since few people know who publishes a particular book, it's unlikely to impact Random House or Doubleday.
"[Readers] don't care who the publisher is; even [if they did], no one holds an institutional sort of grudge," Hogan says. "There will never be a Doubleday boycott."
"I don't think there will be any fallout" with editors, the agent says. "If [Nan Talese] is okay with it, it's probably a bigger barometer," of the industry's perception than anything else. But the agent expects to be a little more careful in the future.
Goldstein looks at the controversy with a sanguine note.
"Anything that brings publicity to books is a good thing," Goldstein says.
If Amazon.com is an indication, the public isn't going to boycott on principle. A Million Little Pieces is number two on the bestsellers' list. Number one, is Night, by Elie Wiesel; Oprah's next book club selection.