Are publishers getting increasingly desperate for bestsellers? A recent Hugh Howey post I discussed suggests just that–and a Sydney Morning Herold story about the way Big Five publisher Penguin handled a recent literary scandal seems to provide supporting evidence.
The scandal centers around a cookbook by Belle Gibson, who claimed to have cured herself dietetically of terminal brain cancer, based on her “The Whole Pantry” mobile app. The claims were subsequently determined to have been entirely fraudulent. Gibson has since experienced considerable public backlash, up to and including having personal details about her posted online.
The article notes that Penguin knew about discrepancies in the story behind the book five months before it was ever published, but went right ahead with it anyway–and its first move after publishing it was to hire a PR agency to determine ways to deflect any potential claims Gibson might be lying.
Penguin ended up recalling and pulping the book, for which it paid Gibson a $130,000 advance. (As this is an Australian news source, it’s not clear whether that is US or Australian dollars; if it’s Austrailian, that converts to just under $99,000 US–still a lot of money.) Penguin reportedly paid $15,000 to a home economist to help develop recipes for the book, and is also paying a $30,000 fine for its part in the deception. All things considered, it’s clear Penguin did a terrible job fact-checking the book; the attempt to deflect concerns about it with PR is just the icing on the cake.
Why didn’t Penguin pay closer attention? Could it be that it simply wanted a hit book, and the story sounded good enough that it was willing to stick its fingers in its ears and willfully disregard any possibility that it could be false? How else could a multi-billion-dollar publisher let itself be so completely taken in by a story that clearly had considerable discrepancies?
Of course, there have been plenty of publishing scandals centering around poorly-fact-checked books through the years. That there should be another one is nothing new. But when you consider how book sales have been falling lately, and it’s only the fad for adult coloring books that masks the true extent of the decline, any case where a publisher is so easily and willingly fooled starts to look less like an innocent error of judgment and more like sheer desperation.