Some people cringe when their book receives a negative book review. As a writer, it definitely hurts to receive some critical remark or sentence about your “child” or book. Yet on the publicity side of things, at least people are talking about and thinking about your book. It’s an old saying that I learned from a seasoned publicist and true, “Any publicity is good publicity.” With over 190,000 books published last year—who are we kidding if we think otherwise?
As you shape your book proposal or your novel, just remember that controversy sells books. Radio and television interviewers love guests who are laced with a bit of controversy. It draws readers and listeners. If you doubt this principle, just take a look at what’s going on with the James Frey book, A Million Little Pieces. This book has been everywhere—the news, talk radio, the regular bookstores, the other places that people buy books like Target, in the airports, or ______. Just pick your favorite spot and the book is likely to be there.
Last October, Oprah Winfrey picked A Million Little Pieces as the 54th selection for her book club. The book immediately skyrocketed on the trade paperback bestseller list. While gaining Oprah’s selection is a huge boost to the book, I predict this book will sell even more copies in light of the controversy last week. Smoking Gun called Frey’s book “A Million Little Lies” yet Oprah Winfrey and Frey’s publisher, Random House, have stood behind the content of the book. Make sure you notice the addition of the little Oprah symbol on the cover of A Million Little Pieces. To a book author, the symbol is worth it’s weight in gold because is guarantees millions of sales.
Last week, James Frey appeared exclusively for part of the Larry King Show on CNN and during the broadcast, Oprah called and verbally expressed her on-going support for this book. The buzz around this title is incredible and it’s because of the controversy. Interviewers are explaining the meaning of a memoir and whether the information was stretched or not.
OK, I’ve not read Frey’s book (yet—I plan to do so). I did listen to a brief audio excerpt of the book from the Random House website. It is not a Christian book and in fact, Frey says in this audio tape that he doesn’t believe in God. He also tells about writing the first four chapters then not writing the rest of the book until it sold to a publisher (his first book). He talks about the difficulty of writing and reliving the experiences in the book. From my years of writing and editing, I can understand the challenges that he faced to write such material. Hard doesn’t begin to capture it.
I’ve not read much of the controversy about Frey stretching some of the details of this book. But here’s a story from my experience that might help you understand how it can happen in nonfiction. Memoir is a nonfiction book which is true to the experience of the author. Frey has had some incredible experiences. As a drug addict and alcoholic, I imagine there were many experiences that he could not recall. He mentions periods of blackouts (where he recalls nothing). It happens in these situations, so you may wonder how he wrote about it. He used creative license.
Years ago, I had the privilege of spending time with Jamie Buckingham, the prolific writer, editor and often ghostwriter. If you’ve never heard of Jamie, I wouldn’t be surprised since he died over ten years ago in 1992. One of his best known books was called Run, Baby, Run. It’s the inspirational story of Nicky Cruz, the New York gang member and how he turned to Christ. Much of Nicky’s early years were involved in drugs and alcohol. Despite his skills as an interviewer, Jamie couldn’t get Nicky to recall the details related to the stories. The details are what make for good storytelling. What did he do? Jamie was charged to tell a great story yet from the blackouts and other such drug experiences, the details weren’t available. He used his creative imagination and created the scenes. The book is written in the first person tense and every detail was checked with Nicky Cruz. Admittedly Jamie took a bit of creative license in this process and created dialogue and details for the story. Years after the fact and the bestselling book, with amusement, Jamie told me that he heard Nicky tell these created stories with great passion and detail. Does it make the story any less true? No, it shows the storytelling skill that Jamie used to bring that story to life and to print. It’s one of the things that happen at times in the storytelling process.
Back to my key point in this entry about the writing life—controversy sells. In the creative process of writing your proposal or your novel, take some time to figure out how to build this element into your marketing plans. It will stir interest—and potentially sales for your book.