The publisher of the Oprah Winfey-endorsed fake memoir A Million Little Pieces is being sued for US$50 million by a Californian reader. The Wall Street Journal says Karen Futernick bought James Frey’s book on the basis that it was non-fiction and has filed a lawsuit against Random House and its Doubleday imprint. “Nobody can get away with profiting with a product that you represented as something that it is not,” says Futernick’s attorney. First published in 2003 with lacklustre sales, Frey’s memoir became the second top seller of 2005 after Oprah made it her book club choice in September. Now Frey says he invented stuff about every character in the book, including himself – and Oprah feels “duped.”

“Only in California,” says Patrick Gallagher, chairman of Australian publisher Allen & Unwin, who will forever be known as the publisher of “Helen Demidenko’s” The Hand That Signed The Paper, not a fake memoir but a novel with a fake author. He says publishers and their editors have a duty to check facts in works of non-fiction as far as they can. But if an author is determined to mislead an editor and a mixture of fact and fantasy ends up in the bookshops, it’s “not a black mark” for the publisher says Gallagher.

Publishing people in the US say lack of investment in editorial “fact checking” is at the root of the matter. The WSJ quotes literary agent Jeff Kleinman suggesting that a less expensive solution for publishers would be to “add a clause to the author’s warranty section in their contracts, stating that to the best of the writer’s knowledge the facts in the book are true.” Then if the book turns out to be full of whoppers, “the author could be sued for breach of contract.”

Well, yes. Standard author/publisher contracts in Autralia contain versions of this warranty:

The author warrants that the work contains nothing defamatory or in breach of any law and that all statements in the work purporting to be factual are true.

Would Gallagher sue an author found to be in breach of such a warranty? Ha, hmmm, “it would depend on the degree of the crime.” We don’t suppose he could say “No.”

Legendary Sydney literary agent Barbara Mobbs is scornful about editors who can’t pick a fake. If a Frey manuscript came to her posing as a memoir she’d “smell it was a dud,” she says. But Mobbs has noticed quite a few “definitely suss” autobiographies being published in the US over recent years. A bit of fantasy makes for a good yarn for publishers to peddle to people with dull lives, she says. And they read the stuff “at their own risk.”

Peter Fray

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