Friday, April 20, 2012

Are Publishers Responsible for Content of Memoirs They Sell?

What do you think?  Should it be legal to sue the publisher of a memoir that has been falsified by its author?  We do seem to have had a rash of lie-filled memoirs in recent years, and that very well might be because publishers are dropping the vetting ball more than ever before.  (But maybe that's just a perception on my part because I read so much publishing related news on the internet these days.)

Some consumers have had it - as in those who have filed a class action lawsuit against Penguin asking to be reimbursed for what they spent on Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, two memoirs written by Greg Mortenson.  Mortenson has already agreed to reimburse the Central Asia Institute (the charity he himself set up to build schools in Afghanistan) for $1 million in expenses he received from that group over the period during which the books were researched, written, and publicized.

I have to say that, although Penguin's defense does make some sense, the way that it was worded in this LA Times article made me laugh because it sounds so childish upon first reading it:
“If a publisher were required to guarantee or ensure the truth and accuracy of everything an author says, the costs of publishing books would be prohibitive,” Penguin lawyers argued in their brief seeking dismissal of the lawsuit.
Excuse me?  That is a bit like your child saying he doesn't have time to do his homework because it will cut down on his television-watching time.

Don't publishers vet the content of the memoirs they invest so much time and money into before they print them?  Are Penguin lawyers actually saying that they cannot afford to protect the reading public (and, in this case, people who donated to a specific charity because of what they read in a Penguin book) from unscrupulous people who tweak the truth?  Why is there no language in a writer's contract that would force the return of cash advances and previously paid royalties in cases of memoirs that turn out to be filled with lies?  Surely, such a clause is in there somewhere?

A Penguin representative added:
“If the plaintiffs disagree with the books’ contents, they can debate it in their homes, their schools, their communities; write articles about it; blog about it; or tell others not to buy the books,” they said. “Plaintiffs should not be allowed to create a world where authors are exposed to the debilitating expense of class-action litigation just because someone believes a book contains inaccuracies.”
The good news is that the Central Asia Institute has reorganized in a way that allows it to continue to build schools in Afghanistan at least for now.  Its mission lives despite the alleged lies that Mr. Mortenson included in his two books.

Is Penguin correct?  Personally, I think this class action suit is silly, and that the larger issue involves lying to raise cash for a charity that would then be mismanaged by the author and his people.  Thus, the $1 million dollar reimbursement to Central Asia Institute.


  1. I think the class action suit is silly too but it is such a shame that Mortenson lied when he could have told the truth about his life and experiences and still raised a lot of money for his charity.

  2. If they don't do basic fact checking of their books, doesn't that make traditional publishers only slightly better than vanity presses? I always thought that one of the selling points of a traditionally published book, at least from the reader's perspective, was that you could expect something with a certain level of editing and a certain level of quality of information. I'm not necessarily on board with suing Penguin, because I think this country is too sue-happy overall, but there needs to be more recognition of the publishers' responsibility for what they publish.

  3. I hate to say it, Kathleen, but Mortenson's behavior leaves me with the impression that he may have let greed overwhelm his original good intentions.

  4. What an absolutely great point you make, Library Girl. Exactly.