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Aaron Greenspan

Aaron Greenspan

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The Fakebook

Posted: 06/11/08 02:13 PM ET

I learned recently that a book is being written. Rumor has it that the book will be a tell-all account of the origins of the company that TIME recently placed head-to-head with Google and Apple as one of the possible rulers of what it dubs "the new internet." The company in question is of course Facebook, Inc., and the book looks to be an exciting read. I'll probably even end up buying a copy, which will be a terrible shame, because the few manuscript pages that have already surfaced on the internet indicate that the author has an apparent tendency to blend fact with wild fiction, and I personally prefer true facts over the other kinds.

One might wonder where this manuscript originated. That remains unclear, but it is being reported that fresh from his success with his nominally non-fiction book, Bringing Down the House (called "not a work of 'nonfiction' in any meaningful sense" by The Boston Globe and also known as 21 on the big screen), star author Ben Mezrich has apparently found his new calling in weaving a tale about the entrepreneurial endeavors that led to the creation of a company at one point valued as highly as $15 billion. It seems like the perfect idea for a book, with the requisite elements of suspense (will it survive the lawsuits and actually be worth what they say?), intrigue (was the code really stolen?), and the High Life (what do they put in the water at Harvard that sprouts these paper billionaires, anyway?). It's no wonder that Mr. Mezrich is reported to have received a $1.9 million advance before he even had a finished manuscript. There's only one problem: so far, the book is being billed as a memoir, and I don't recall seeing him at Harvard in 2003, because he wasn't there.

In the world of fake books, this situation is unique because it typically takes a long time to find out that a book contains incorrect or misrepresented information. With this latest incident, the manuscript fragment was discovered early on. By contrast, in the drawn-out spectacle surrounding James Frey's memoir, the book in question had already sold several hundred thousand copies before it was even selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, and several million more were sold before the truth about its contents came out months later. Other fake memoirs, such as those by Margaret B. Jones and Misha Defonseca, had also been on bookstore shelves long before anyone knew that they were essentially collections of lies. Yet there hasn't even been an official announcement confirming that this new book is even coming out, or that the manuscript is even Mezrich's work.

While there are obvious public relations reasons not to announce that a badly-researched manuscript belongs to an author you just signed a deal with, the announcement we should be hearing from its nominal publisher, that the book is definitively not coming out due to the sheer number of discrepancies found in the leaked sample, is equally guaranteed never to take place at this point. From the publisher's standpoint, the book already has "buzz," which is of course a good thing. Such a mindset clearly illustrates that veracity is not even a criterion editors seriously consider anymore (assuming that they once did) when they make a decision to green-light a book for publication. Chances are, that will continue to be the case until someday someone gets seriously hurt and decides to sue for libel.

The only way to fix the problem is to change the incentive structure. In April, most likely to cut costs, HarperCollins announced that it would take the progressive step of forming a new group that did away with author advances entirely. It was billed as an attempt to change the way publishing works. Oddly enough, on a large enough scale, it just might. Even though authors receiving profit-sharing checks might still have just as much incentive to write popular, sensationalized content as authors receiving advance checks, there is a crucial difference. Right now, even the most well-intentioned publishing houses have to recoup their advance costs if they want to stay in business, which means that they'll promote even the most dishonest of books if they have to, and even when it's well-known that the book is dishonest. It would be far easier for publishers to enforce the clauses in non-fiction contracts that require factual basis for work if pulling the plug on a book didn't require taking a huge financial loss each time. (There is unfortunately no good economic justification for publishers endorsing additional works of a known con artist once that person's deception has been revealed. James Frey and his publishers should all be ashamed of themselves.)

Concerned authors need not worry, however, for a sea change in any industry, let alone one as mired in tradition as publishing, is hard to come by. Relative to advances, the alternative of profit-sharing might actually work out better financially for authors in the long term (and certainly better for publishers, who have almost zero ability to predict the whims of readers), but it's hard to one-up the statement, "we'll write you a check for a million dollars right now." Literary agents, who rate themselves on the sizes of their deals, might have similar apprehensions about doing away with big numbers.

In the meantime, it is certain that whatever document the few manuscript pages I read on the internet belong to, it is fiction. The introduction is full of factual errors, from the naming of software projects to a blatantly false anecdote involving the consumption of possibly inedible koala on a possibly non-existent yacht. (According to c|net's Caroline McCarthy, Sun Microsystems chairman Scott McNealy, the supposed owner of the yacht, wrote back in an e-mail, "Never owned a boat in my life.")

Of course, the editors don't care what a book is called so long as it sells, and the frauds will never go away. After all, America loves its liars, for its liars generate cash.

Aaron Greenspan is the author of the forthcoming Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.

 

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