Saturday, January 14, 2006

Controversy Sells

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?Author James Frey

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.A Million Little Pieces cover 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.

9 Comment:

At 10:21 AM, Blogger Ken G Left a note...

My youngest daughter committed suicide in 84 and in 2004 her mother (my-ex) died from lung cancer. My daughter left behind five journals plus I have letters from her and my ex, which I have been putting together in a book. Writing this shows me how each person involved had been thinking or viewing life at different times. I add my input where I fit in with hopes of giving a reader different pictures of the over-all scene so it becomes more like watching a movie. I can see where Frey's book could have seemed like lies to others because of the experiences I've been through.
What I don't understand is how come his book became to hard to write and then when he found it would be published he finished writing it? That seems like something I would have trouble trusting.
Thanks for great advice shared with us. I appreciate it.

At 2:02 PM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


Frey struggled to write some of the incidents because he didn't have any vivid details for his memories (which make for the best storytelling). It was because of his blackouts from drug and alcohol abuse.

As a first-time author, it sounds like he wisely only wrote the first four chapters--and not the entire book. These first four chapters are riveting reading and were used to sell the literary agent (then the publisher) on the merits of publishing the book.

It was wise because until you get a publishing contract, you don't know if anyone is going to publish your work. In nonfiction (which Frey's memoir is considered), it's better not to write the entire manuscript. Instead work on a book proposal and a few sample chapters. It's a much smarter and more productive strategy to find a publisher--at least from my broad experience.

The Writing Life

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Unknown Left a note...

Controversy sells to the public, but what about to editors?

At 9:28 AM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


Controversy will sell to editors--particularly if you highlight the potential controversy and media opportunities which result in the marketing elements of your book proposal. It is not the editor's responsibility to lead the charge when it comes to these aspects. It needs to start with the writer.

As I've mentioned often in this blog, the actual publishing decision inside a house is not made with a single editor but involves consensus building and finding a champion on the inside. Give the editor as many selling points for your book as possible.

The Writing Life

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Dineen A. Miller Left a note...

The book I'm writing now encompasses a hot topic. I'm very protective of the storyline because I don't want to give it away. It's the most difficult book I've written to date--the research alone is overwhelming. And I know I'll need a specialist in this area to read so I know it's believable. Bringing the facts out has been a real challenge, but I love the story. The spiritual thread is so subtle, yet so relevant also.

At 10:31 AM, Blogger Ken G Left a note...

From being familiar with people that have substance abuse problems such as Frey's I assume his behavior includes deceiving and deception. There had been a time in my life where I tried to help people with this behavior only to find I needed help for trying to help them. I didn't consider the part about publishing and have a hard time understanding his hardship about remembering. If it came to getting drugs or a drink when he lived that way I'm sure he wouldn't of had a hard time then. I think that the controversy about this is that there are so many who have been involved with substance abuse or came from their families that many don't believe what he wrote. People are looking for answers so anything written about subjects that offer a possibility could stand a chance of selling. My own daughter wrote about drinking and drugs in her journals, yet I look into my own life to see how I might have drank to avoid being responsible.
Gees, I better get writing. I might have a best seller on my hands. LOL

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Margo Carmichael Left a note...

Hi, Terry, we chatted at ACFW Denver.

How well I remember Jamie Buckingham. I put all his books in my church library. (I was librarian for eight years.) I loved what he wrote about the Eskimo that visited NYC with a famous explorer, and returned home, described all he saw, and was branded a liar.

Another Eskimo later took the same trip and spared the people the details of the tall igloos that glowed with lights without fire, but described instead, fishing on the Hudson River. He was branded something wonderful, I forget. The point was how sometimes we're afraid to say what God is really doing, for fear of others' reactions to the truth.

And I heard Jamie speak at Jesus Festivals in Orlando and I bought his tapes. His testimony was great. He taught us a lot about worship, out under the stars in a huge cow pasture near the back gate to Disney World.

It must have been wonderful for you to work with him.

I also took our youth to hear Nicky Cruz speak, and that was a great experience, too.

(My driving the church van for the first and only time notwithstanding!)

The following Sunday, Easter, I was in a supermarket after church and two motorcycle gang members on Easter Break, no doubt, came in with their identifying tattoos and leather.

I thought, whoa, Lord, I'm not super-witness Nicky Cruz, hope they don't get in my line.

There were eight check-out lines open. They got in my line. Right behind me.

I did manage to hand one a "Give the MASTER CHARGE of your life" card, then scurry away.

He said, "Hey, lady! Can I go home with you?" I laughed and said "NOooooo!" and left. Fast.

I had read my own card, though. LOL

Take care,

At 11:49 AM, Blogger Bob Left a note...


While working on an as told to autobiography some month's back, I picked up Frey's book to see what the big deal was about. I couldn't get through the first chapter because 1) no one gets on in the condition Frey describes and 2) if anyone was on a plane in that condition, they wouldn't remember the kinds of details he remembers.

I had the same problem that Jamie Buckingham did -- a source who can't recall events because they were too intoxicated to remember them, so some of the events are sketchy in the book, rather than creatively imagined. In other cases, we kept at it--that is, used creativity to imagine what the plausible details were--which helped spark memories. (For example if a scene happened outside in winter, I'd write about snow on the ground crunching underfoot--which, if that wasn't the case, we eliminated in revisions.)

Frey's story went beyond reasonable creativity, IMHO. He, in literary terms, gained the world but lost his soul. I would think that his career as an author is over.

As an editor, would you buy a book from him?

At 2:06 PM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun Left a note...

"Controversy sells" is exactly the same attitude I have with The DaVinci Code. The more time people spend debunking the novel, the more books the man sells.

IMHO trying to debunk a work of fiction amounts to trying to empty the Atlantic Ocean with an eyedropper!


Post a Comment

That's the writing life...

Back to the home page...