Books — staid and intellectual cultural artifacts that they so often are — were not all just staid or intellectual this year. Not nearly. There were, in fact, scandals, at least a few of them surrounding books and their authors and publishers, and there were times in which discussions of books and the business grew dramatic and tension-filled. Near-scandals! Other times, these conversations were simply very, very interesting, full of twists and turns, much like a good book. Remember when Philip Roth took on Wikipedia to clear up what he described as false perceptions of The Human Stain? (It was a big year for Philip Roth news altogether, really.) Or what about when Penguin sued authors for their advances, citing nondelivery of manuscripts, thereby breaking with the industry's long-standing tradition of, well, generally not suing authors for that? Then there was Fifty Shades of Grey, its popularity and hype and the various sensational headlines therein. A lot happened this year in publishing, and this year in general, but these are the scandals(!), events, and incidents that made everyone remember that the book business is (almost) as fraught with drama and controversy as anything else — and that, despite all the doomsaying, it is surely most alive!
The Outting of the Fox News Mole and the Neverending Book Deal In April, a guy calling himself the "Fox News Mole" appeared to reveal an array of potentially enticing "dirty secrets" from the Fox News mothership by way of Gawker. Less than 24 hours later, Fox News management found him, fired him, and threatened the exploration of "legal options" for vengeance. The Mole turned out to be a guy named Joe Muto, but all was not lost, even if his job was. By May, he had that book deal we'd predicted, paler shades of Greg "Why I'm Leaving Goldman Sachs" Smith's $1.5 million advance, to the tune of six figures. The biggest "scandal" (more like an accepted norm) in this is that, really, anyone can get a book deal, as long as they're willing to sell out a high-profile employer in a mass media sort of way. Is six figures enough to pay off your legal bills if Fox News sues you?
The Apple eBook Lawsuit As fun as it is to watch authors trade cruel barbs, the stakes in your typical book scandal are usually pretty low. But more than a few bruised egos were involved in the Department of Justice's lawsuit against Apple and a handful of publishers for supposedly fixing the price of e-books. The alleged colluders were hauled in by the DoJ back in April. What Apple and the publishers call the agency model — a system under which publishers stipulate that retailers must charge full price — the DoJ calls swindling book buyers. Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster wanted no part in the proceedings, settling in the summer and agreeing to let their titles go for the low, low average price of $9.99. Apple, Penguin, and Macmillan soldier on, planning to defend their preferred price point of $14.99 in court next summer. Meanwhile, Amazon — the price-slashing party many hold responsible for this whole controversy in the first place — dances merrily outside the courthouse, handing out e-books for loose change.
Pippa Gets Panned Poor Pippa Middleton! Her sister marries the prince, and she gets the book deal. Which might not be so bad, really, except that Pippa's party-planning book, Celebrate, was subject to more ridicule than perhaps any other tome this year (well, maybe). Eventually she responded to criticism that her tips were "glaringly obvious" by saying she "had to cover the basics." Turkey is good for a holiday meal, isn't it? Middleton got a 400,000-pound advance for shaking the dust off her obvious suggestions, reportedly, so whatever people say about the book we presume she can laugh her way to the old bank — even if there's no forthcoming sequel.
Philip Roth vs. His Wikipedia Page On a Friday in September, The New Yorker posted an open letter from Philip Roth to Wikipedia on its Page-Turner blog. The letter began, "Dear Wikipedia, I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel The Human Stain. The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip—there is no truth in it at all." Roth went on in wonderfully readable fashion (read the letter, seriously) to elaborate on why there was no truth in said item, which is that The Human Stain had been "allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard." (Turns out, Roth explains, he only met Broyard three or four times over the course of three decades, once while playing football on the beach!) And for Roth's pains, there are now two graphs in the Wikipedia page for the novel outlining the "Anatole Broyard controversy."
Philip Roth vs. Himself And the next month, Roth told a French newspaper that that he'd never write again — and in fact, that he'd retired. His publisher confirmed the news in November, and the American media response began in full, with The New Yorker's David Remnick and others weighing in on the whys and hows and whats of it all. In a New York Times interview — apparently his last — Roth explained to Charles McGrath that he was quitting, essentially, "because he feels he has said what he has to say." But: Roth is collaborating on a novella via email with the 8-year-old daughter of a former girlfriend, even if he was forgoing the traditional form. More recently, when a Twitter account was mistaken briefly for his actual one, Roth spoke out again, this time by way of his biographer, Blake Bailey, who tweeted that not only should expect neither a novel nor a Twitter account:
The real Philip Roth--yes, him--would have it known that he has NO twitter account, and it is MOST unlikely he ever shall. @philiprothoffic
— Blake Bailey (@BlakeBaileyOn) December 26, 2012
Penguin Sues Authors, Penguin Sued by Editor In late September, The Smoking Gun broke the news that the Penguin Group had filed lawsuits against 12 writers, including Elizabeth Wurtzel, Ana Marie Cox, Rebecca Meade, and Herman Rosenblatt, for failing to deliver books they'd contractually promised to the publisher. Penguin sought repayments, plus interest, of those advances, causing mega-agent Robert Gottlieb to speak out against what he called the breaking of a gentleman's agreement. He wrote in a comment on the Smoking Gun piece, "Penguin this is wrong headed. Authors beware. Books are rejected for reasons other than editorially and publishers then want their money back. Publishers want to reject manuscripts for any reason after an author has put time and effort into writing them all the while paying their bills. Another reason to have strong representation. If Penguin did this to one of Trident’s authors we could cut them out of all our submissions."
Penguin faced their own lawsuit during the year, too, from Marilyn Ducksworth, who worked at the company for 27 years and sued in September (after resigning from the company) over age discrimination. This caused blogger Edward Champion to ask, via Twitter, "Why did Penguin wait until NOW to go after advances? Has Ducksworth been settled? And are authors having to pay up for discrimination?" Of course a writer would attempt to connect the dots; that's just good writing.
Love Pentagon Ostensibly more of a political scandal, there was a book publishing element here, too. Paula Broadwell's All In: The Education of David Petraeus was the book that got a sales bump for all the wrong reasons after her extra-marital affair with the former general was revealed to have been going on during the writing of the book, which could be described as a kind of fan fic about Petraeus himself. (Amazon reviewers are not amused.)
Amazon "Sockpuppet" Reviews On the Internet, no one can hear you giving your own book five stars. At least that's what authors like R. J. Ellory, who got caught sock-puppeting online book reviews this year, were hoping. These wise guys thought that they had devised a foolproof online self-promotion strategy: create anonymous user accounts on sites like Amazon and Goodreads, gush about your own titles, pan books by other authors, sit back and watch the money and fame roll in. And they would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for readers clever enough to notice that many of their online "fans" sounded too similar. The sock-puppeteers didn't expect these sleuths to notice when their "reviewers" responded to chat room questions directed at authors who forgot which account they were using.
Bookstores vs. the Amazon Imprint Independent book shops and chain stores like Barnes & Noble seemed united on one point this year: they didn't want to be a showroom for a company that's cutting so heavily into their market. Sorry Amazon, they said, but we won't carry titles from your New Harvest imprint. Plenty of small stores stuck to the boycott, but Barnes & Noble let a few of Amazon's books through the cracks.
The Disappearing Shadow of the Navy SEAL When Penguin's surprise announcement surfaced, that a retired Navy SEAL would be offering a tell-all account of Team 6's successful hit on Osama bin Laden, to be released on September 11th, the author of No Easy Day was supposed to be known only as "Mark Owen." But Fox News made Matt Bissonnette a buzz name in the book world this year when they outed him just days later. Bissonnette had obvious reasons for wanting to use a pseudonym: attempts at retribution from al-Qaeda members, not to mention possible criminal charges for not clearing the book with the Pentagon. Some say Bissonnette shouldn't have revealed sensitive military information. Others say Fox News shouldn't have endangered his personal safety. In any case, now he can get personal credit not only for helping to kill bin Laden, but also for whetting the publishing business' insatiable apetite for SEAL memoirs this year.
Brett Easton Ellis Twitter Rants These are something of a perennial — Easton Ellis taking to Twitter to say things offensive to one, some, or all — and they happened again in 2012, when the American Psycho author tweeted freely about Lindsay Lohan, Kathryn Bigelow, Fifty Shades of Grey (specifically, the movie's scriptwriter; specifically, not Easton Ellis), Nikki Finke, and David Foster Wallace ... and people got mad.
Barraged today by people who think I'm "sexist" and "toxic" for thinking the beautiful Kathryn Bigelow is overrated because she's a woman...— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) December 7, 2012
He apologized for what he said about Bigelow, so maybe our little author is growing up! In less directly offensive to others Twitter rants, don't forget, also, the late-night Twitter "brainstorming session" in which he went on for five hours about what a sequel to American Psycho might look like. An outlet, every artiste needs an outlet.
Don't Speak About Mo Yan's Stance on Censorship This year's Nobel Prize winner in fiction came under fire for being too cozy with red pen-wielding Chinese authorities. Yan, whose nom de plume translates as "Don't Speak," didn't exactly help his case by comparing state censorship of literature to routine airport security in his acceptance speech. Salman Rushdie called the author a regime "patsy." Pankaj Mishra said critics like Rushdie were subjecting Yan to a Sinophobic double standard. People on the Internet — who had no censors to stop them — kept making the same dumb joke, over and over.
Monica's Millions Remember when everyone was all like, "Wow, did you hear Monica Lewinsky got a $12 million advance for her tell-all?" And then remember when we were all like, "No she didn't"? We hate to say we told you so, but it's been a few months now, and we're still not seeing any dearly bought sequels to Monica's Story on lists of upcoming releases. Well, there's always 2013.
Insets via Flickr/kiyong ahn; Emma Straub via Twitter; Lena Dunham via AP; Random Penguin via AP.