- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

This season’s most controversial book isn’t an election-year expose or a celebrity tell-all - it’s a historical novel.

It hasn’t gotten its notoriety through the big marketing bucks that huge publishing conglomerates can access - it’s being brought out by a near-unknown.

It has fallen to a small, independent house, best known until now as the publisher of O.J. Simpson’s infamous “If I Did It,” to publish Sherry Jones‘ debut novel, “The Jewel of Medina” because, it seems, the big boys simply were too scared to release it.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of the American publishing industry, whose members once risked ostracism and faced down government censors to give the public access to important but controversial books.

It’s not that Ms. Jones couldn’t attract the attention of a major house. Her novel imagines the life of Aisha, the favored wife of Muslim prophet Muhammad, from childhood to maturity.

Historical fiction is one of publishing’s hottest genres, and the journalist secured a $100,000 deal for “Jewel” and its sequel from Random House, the world’s largest English-language publisher. The first novel was scheduled to be published Aug. 12.

However, in May, just three months before the book was to hit the shelves, Random House abruptly canceled publication.

A spokesman said it did so “for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.”

Were there widespread protests against the novel? Had the publisher received threats of violence? Did it seem that Ms. Jones’ life was in danger?

“No,” responds her agent, Natasha Kern.

Random House apparently took this almost unprecedented step on the word of a single scholar.

The company had sent a copy of the manuscript to Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin for a jacket blurb.

The professor gave Random House publicity of a different kind. She found the book offensive - one scene describes the consummation of the marriage, though in terms tame enough that it could be printed in this family newspaper - and told the publisher the book was “a national security issue,” according to an editor there.

Ms. Kern said both she and the author (whom the publisher wasn’t making available for interviews) were shocked. “It was in production at Random House for a year, so obviously many, many people read it. It was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection,” she points out. “We did get blurbs and reviews.”

After Random House’s decision to cancel publication, Ms. Jones was free to shop the book elsewhere, but as Ms. Kern notes, “Once fire has been shouted in a crowded theater, people react.” Some publishers, she says, were worried about how the public would perceive the book after the firestorm set off by the decision. (Even Salman Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” earned him a fatwa, waded in, supporting the author.)

Never mind that no one seemed to be able to point to anything in the book that might actually incite radical Muslims to act. Ms. Kern says the rights also have been sold in many other countries; the book already has been published in Serbia.

That country, which has seen its fair share of Christian-Muslim ill will, hasn’t had a single violent protest. “Most of the publishers responded by saying, ‘Tell me where the controversial parts are, because I’m not finding them,’” Ms. Kern says.

Eric Kampmann isn’t worried about his safety, either. The former head of sales at Simon & Schuster is the founder of Beaufort Books, which plans to publish “Jewel” next month. The company has just 2 1/2 employees. “To my great surprise, no major publisher had come in,” he says. “I’m not an idiot. If there were threats here, I’d react. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The fact that Beaufort will bring out the book so fast is one reason Ms. Jones chose the house. Mr. Kampmann has had some practice - with “If I Did It.”

“We had to produce the book in about a month - the Goldmans were about to be on Oprah,” he says. The parents of Ronald Goldman, the man O.J. Simpson was accused of killing along with Mr. Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, had acquired the rights to the book after HarperCollins canceled it. “It was an amazing success,” he says, and made the New York Times best-seller list.

Mr. Kampmann won’t predict the same for “The Jewel of Medina,” but he says it’s “got all the signs.” He brings up one best-selling title that talks, in an indirect way, about the sex life of another religious figure - Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” which posits that Jesus fathered a family with Mary Magdalene. A book currently on the New York Times list is David Ebershoff’s “The 19th Wife,” a novel about one of Mormon leader Brigham Young’s wives. Both were published to little controversy, though the pope certainly isn’t a “Da Vinci” fan.

Mr. Kampmann chooses his words carefully in talking about Random House’s cowardice. “What would Bennett Cerf do?” he wonders. The founder of Random House went to court in 1933 for the right to publish James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” His legacy seems in danger of dying.

“A great publisher is always out on the edge, ready to fall off,” Mr. Kampmann says. “They see something in culture. I don’t think I’m a great publisher, but I have the heart of one.” He didn’t give Ms. Jones much of an advance, but she could earn a lot in royalties if the book is a success.

What makes the controversy all the more galling is that “The Jewel of Medina” could put a very human face on a religion about which most Americans know very little - and of which more than a few Americans are wary.

Last year, I lambasted HarperCollins for refusing to take responsibility for giving a contract to Mr. Simpson for “If I Did It.” Little did I know I would be calling the company that finally did publish it a hero.

The publishing industry never fails to surprise.

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