Sex, Lies, and Memoirs: What's the Cost of Writing a Tell-All Book?

The lives of two young women were forever altered by sexual affairs. Now they're cashing in.

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Composite Image: Reuters, AP Images

I've been fascinated lately by the contrasting sagas of two young women, both products of their times, and how the way they chose to tell their stories reflect the media culture of our age.

Amanda Knox, now 24 years old, spent four years in Italian jails accused of collaborating in the murder of her roommate in a case replete with sex and drugs. Last fall, an appeals court in Perugia reversed the conviction of Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, on grounds that the guilty verdicts were not supported by evidence presented at their trial. Aside from releasing a brief statement of gratitude, Knox said nothing and flew home to Seattle. Soon she began making arrangements to sell her story to publishers. She retained the extraordinary services of Robert Barnett, the Washington lawyer whose roster of clients includes Barack Obama, both Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin, among other luminaries. According to the Associated Press, which provided what seems to be the fullest account of the auction, "some 20 publishers were interested and Knox met with seven, all of whom submitted bids." The winner was HarperCollins.

"Financial terms were not disclosed," the Associated Press reported, "but an official with knowledge of the negotiations said the deal was worth $4 million for world rights. The official was not authorized to discuss the negotiations and spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity." HarperCollins issued a lengthy statement about the book, but did not dispute the size of the advance. "No one has yet heard Amanda Knox's own account of what happened," HarperCollins' publisher Jonathan Burnham said. "This book will give Knox an opportunity to tell the story in full detail. It will be the story of a crime and a trial, but also a moving account of a young woman's struggle to cope with a nightmarish ordeal that placed her at the center of a media storm and led to her imprisonment."

In the same week as the Knox auction, the number-one bestselling combined print and e-book on the authoritative New York Times list was Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath. There is no bloodshed in this saga, but it is nonetheless an astounding and disturbing story. Mimi Alford (who was known then as Marion Beardsley) was 19 years old and was seduced by the president four days after coming to work as a White House intern in 1962. The affair continued for the next 18 months, until Kennedy was assassinated. While Knox retained a top-tier lawyer-agent for a book tentatively scheduled for release in early 2013 and--from undisputed accounts--became an overnight multi-millionaire, Alford waited 50 years before releasing her tale. Presumably, Alford was well compensated by Random House, her publisher, but there is no public accounting of her payday. In its way, Alford's decades of discretion compared to Knox's decision to go public now shows how our society has come to favor living out loud over privacy. 

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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