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The Book Publishing Scandals of Early February: Holy Hell

Photo: Vulture

If you woke up Monday morning and daintily keyed-in your favorite book sites in search of some smart and quippy reviews or essays, holy hell, were you in for a ride. Sure, last week there was a hullabaloo over a delayed or canceled YA novel, and Jay Asher, the Thirteen Reasons Why guy who wrote a novel that borderline-fetishized suicide, filed a defamation suit over accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior. But what a gift this week has been, at least for those of us who prefer our news heavily spiced with scandal. Just when it seemed like the most bananas scenario imaginable was the fact that almost every single dude in the Virginia legislature was lining up to tell us that he too had rubbed just a little shoe polish on his face, we got a Talented Mr. Grifter story about a best-selling novelist, a plagiarism scandal involving the former editor of the biggest and most reputable paper in the country, and a blackmail saga involving dick pics, Jeff Bezos, and a man with the straight-outta-Dickens name Mr. Pecker. (Kudos to the New York Post for delivering on that one.)

I am both exhausted and giddy. Can we do this every week, publishing industry? Let’s dive in.

Ripley, Believe It or Not.

Monday morning treated us to Ian Parker’s downhill-snowball of a story in The New Yorker about Dan Mallory (pen name A.J. Finn), the author of fan fave The Woman in the Window, the recipient of a massive $2 million book deal, and a former editor at publishing houses in New York and across the pond. What start out as a few small exaggerations — Mallory says electric shock therapy helped him heal from depression, then says it didn’t; he confuses a story about a trip to China with a trip to Japan — quickly turns into a Patricia Highsmith novel wrapped inside a cheap thriller and decorated with the long curling ribbons of a straight-up scam.

The nectar of the story wasn’t merely that Mallory allegedly lied about his mother and father being dead (sometimes one, sometimes both, as you do), his brother committing suicide, his own cancer scare and subsequent spinal surgeries, his two Ph.D.s, his role working on Tina Fey’s book, cups of urine left around a former boss’s office, and even whether he was currently dog-sitting. It was also about the fact that Sophie Hannah, another insanely popular writer of thrillers and Mallory’s former editing charge, probably used his long con as a plot point in one of her novels, which she showed to Mallory and which he called “amazing.” Two thriller writers, various publishers woefully mistaken about “the cut of his jib,” and at least a half dozen cups of urine later, you’d think William Morrow, Mallory’s publisher and former employer, would have dropped him. But nope: The paperback is still coming out in March and Mallory’s second novel is on its way. If this is performance art, as some have hoped, it’s the first time I’ve ever loved it and wanted more. Next time, Dan, we want interpretive dancers.

Why, Jill, Why?

Jill Abramson — former executive editor of the New York Times (and now a columnist for New York) — almost seemed to have weathered the storm after galleys of her brand-new “state of journalism” tome, Merchants of Truth, were found to have misgendered and allegedly misrepresented Vice reporter Arielle Duhaime-Ross. Finished copies corrected many of the errors and the news cycle stumbled on. Then, in an interview with the Cut, Abramson said that she never records interviews but relies on notes and her near photographic memory instead. File this in your mental lockbox under “Things You Shouldn’t Ever Do or at Least Admit to If Everybody Just Noticed a Ton of Errors in Your Book.”

Barely 24 hours later, Vice correspondent Michael Moynihan pointed out a long string of potentially plagiarized portions in Merchants of Truth. Some sections looked as if they’d been lifted wholesale from various sources, others looked like examples of what media critic Erik Wemple calls “concerted” plagiarism, meaning the sentences had been lightly rewritten but still bore heavy traces of their origins. First Abramson staunchly denied it, saying she was “100% confident” in the accuracy of her work. The next day, on NPR, she admitted she “fell short” when it came to properly citing work, but also shoveled a little bit of dirt on the research assistant she hired to help. Now she says she’ll fix the stolen bits.

So, in other words, the former head of our most lauded national newspaper wrote a book scolding poor journalistic practices, and … didn’t check it thoroughly.

Pecker v. Pecker

Alas, until this point dick pics (or, as the National Enquirer curiously spells it, “dick picks”) had not yet played a role in the feverish excitement publishing brought us this week. Until Thursday, when Jeff Bezos — the man who made it super-easy to receive the entire Harry Potter series, a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser 4-pack, and 20 pounds of dog kibble in one 48-hour delivery — published a post on Medium that so thoroughly unhinged my jaw that it was chattering across my kitchen table all by itself.

In the post, Bezos outlined how “top executives” at the Enquirer had attempted to extort him with said “dick picks,” including one of his “semi-erect manhood,” and, even more embarrassingly, just a straight-up selfie Bezos apparently took during a meeting. As noted friends of President Trump’s, they seem to have wanted the Bezos-owned Washington Post to alter its coverage of investigations into the Enquirer’s political motivations. Mr. Pecker, the chairman and CEO of the paper’s parent company and the apparent possessor of zero irony about his silly last name, thought Bezos would cave under the pressure. Instead of taking the bait, Bezos posted the receipts (well, not all the receipts).

The weirdest bit of all of it? The email that Bezos posted was sent by Jon Fine, the National Enquirer’s deputy general Counsel. Fine, a former in-house counsel at Knopf, used to work for Bezos , as The New Yorker’s George Packer laid out in his massive 2014 foray into just what Amazon was doing to the publishing biz. Fine’s job there was reportedly to “[try] to get publishers to hate Amazon less.” Now he’s helping the National Enquirer try to shut Bezos down for sending nudez. We’ll wait right here for the details.

In a twist as unlikely as any, Bezos’s refusal to, as he calls it, “capitulate” to Big Alien Abduction Journalism has turned him into a bit of a Twitter folk hero. Although I’ve gotta say I’m with Damien Owens on this one.

Blind item!

Keep your eye on this one: On Tuesday, Winners Take All author Anand Giridharadas unleashed a double-blind-item of a Twitter thread about appearing as a guest at a Player’s Club dinner (subbing in for a “disgraced” famous writer) only to fall out with his host, a woman who “once wrote a memoir about her empathy for a pet,” over whether billionaire Republican David Koch is a good guy. (She thought so; he did not.) Reader, “I stood and fled.”

Okay, maybe this one is more of a complementary dessert at the end of a very rich meal. I couldn’t handle another bite, but Monday, I’m ready for whatever you may bring.

The Book Publishing Scandals of Early February: Holy Hell