Be careful who you ask for blurbs

2

August 9, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

Sometimes book publication goes very, very bad.

In preparation for the publication of her debut novel The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones suggested a few people who might be interested in writing cover blurbs. (The kind that praise the book with lots of adjectives, i.e. ‘Magnificent!’ – Thundercat.) Her novel, about the Prophet Mohammed’s young bride, was scheduled to be published by Random House next week. One of those potential blurbers, an academic named Denise Spellberg, had a lot of concerns about the novel, and her comments triggered (sorry, the puns just creep in) a complex reaction which led to the book being spiked.

(Ironically, just as I was typing that paragraph, my Brenda-Novak-agent response came back with a few fundamental comments – one of which was, might my novel prove unpublishable on the grounds of controversy? And guess what news story the agent pointed me to. We write in the zeitgeist.)

(I don’t think Nazis prompt the same type of controversy, but that’s another entry.)

I hate that a publishing house made the decision to cancel a book because someone might get offended. Here’s one of the big problems: you cannot actually predict in advance what is going to annoy someone, or when it will annoy them. The Danish political cartoons that sparked protests were, in some countries, published without any notable protest; looking at the Wikipedia timeline, I’m genuinely amazed at how many countries published these cartoons, without reprisals from anyone. Hell, a Danish newspaper later reprinted one, and that doesn’t seem to have resparked outrage.

I’m not denying that people died as a direct result from this situation, but I’m worried that Random House jumped straight from ‘this academic said thus-and-such’ to ‘death and reprisals’ without due consideration. [I am not, of course, privy to their decision-making process. But I note that they took less than a day to decide ‘to possibly postpone publication’ and three weeks to end it completely. Oh, sorry, ‘indefinitely postpone.’]

[I also note that Spellberg and her attorney claimed they ‘would sue the publisher if her name was associated with the novel.’ Go punch her name into a search engine. Yeah. These things rarely work out the way you want them to.]

To quote the late (alas) columnist Martyn Harris, on the Salman Rushdie fatwa, ‘There is more devastating critique of the divine inspiration of the Koran in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and no one is burning that.’ There is some selectivity here, and clearly not everyone agrees that there is a particular response required for what may be interpreted as unfair criticism. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones’s book received some annoyed e-mails, maybe even a copy or two burned. Heck, maybe it would be a bigger controversy than Danish cartoons + Satanic Verses combined. But what are the chances of that happening? Doesn’t matter – Random House is pulling up the pegs and going home.

What really bugs me about the process detailed in the WSJ article is that someone had a problem with the book – though why a love scene between two people known to have been married should be a ‘delibrate misinterpretation of history’ I can’t figure out, but again, I don’t have all the information (and haven’t read the book, and probably won’t now) – and e-mailed another person, who then posted on their blog about it, and then someone ELSE came up with a seven-point plan to kill the publication and demanded that the author ‘apologise all [sic] the muslims [sic] across the world.’ Note the point at which we move from a perfectly legitimate critique of a book (which Spellberg discusses here) to a decision that every person of a particular religion in the entire world deserves an apology.

Okay, at this point I’ve lost any semblance of a point, and you can probably drive trucks through my logic. I’m stopping here.

Writing a novel about the Third Reich suddenly looks like a much safer proposition than it did when I began this entry. But who knows? – maybe Random House would take on my book and then decide that some wacko neo-Nazi might decide to spray the offices with an MP40.

I feel so sorry for Jones.

Okay, I’m not done yet. If Random House were so concerned about stirring up Mohammed-related controversy, why the hell didn’t someone weigh in on this before the author was preparing for her eight-city book tour? Heck, I had one chapter and a synopsis read by a single agent, and she’s warning me about the ramifications of publishing this.

One chapter. A three-page synopsis (which I don’t think was even very good). And yet this is sufficient for me to receive a warning about controversy concerning a group that no longer exists and who are, among right-thinking people, known to be Bad And Wrong.

And we’re expected to believe that Jones’s agent, editor, copyeditor, cover artist, back-cover-description-writer – okay, scratch the last; they NEVER get the book right – basically, everyone involved in this book failed to consider the possibility of controversy? No one thinks about fatwas and bomb threats until they’re mentioned by an associate professor?

Clearly Spellberg wielded far more power than she thought.

If Random House really is concerned with the bottom line of ‘corporate interests’ (as Spellberg states), maybe they ought to worry about those interests long, long before they send the book out for review.

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2 thoughts on “Be careful who you ask for blurbs

  1. John says:

    What happens financially in these situations? Random House couldn’t ask for their advance back, I would hope?

  2. tsrosenberg says:

    John – as far as I’m aware, the publisher writes off the advance, even when (as in this case) it’s part of a two-book contract. I can’t imagine how the publisher could even get it back, given that taxes will have been paid on it, and the agent will already have taken their 15% (which they deserve to keep – they *did* sell the book, after all!). I suspect there are clauses in the boilerplate contract to cover this sort of thing – and if not, I still don’t see how the publisher spiking the book would require the author to pay back.

    I’m pretty sure that even Kaavya Viswanathan, whose first novel was published and then axed for plagiarism, got to keep the $500K two-book advance. (In her case, she also had to pay the book ‘packager’ whose financial claim to that advance remains murky.)

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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.

Books

CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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