Thursday, December 14, 2006

Remember the O.J. book scandal?

Of course you do. It was just last month, after all, that the country reacted in outrage to the news that O.J. Simpson had decided to describe — “hypothetically,” but in graphic detail — what happened the 1994 night his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were murdered. He was to do so in a book to be published by HarperCollins imprint ReganBooks titled “If I Did It” and in an interview to be aired on Fox. Both projects were canceled in what became the media scandal of the year.

The publishing world seems to have forgotten. In an issue published on Monday, the industry’s trade magazine, Publishers Weekly, named Jane Friedman its Publishing Person of the Year.

The president and chief executive of HarperCollins was one of those responsible for the O.J. fiasco — she approved the reported $2 million to $3.5 million paid to Mr. Simpson’s representatives for his participation. Instead of being chastised for her misreading of the public mood — not to mention a shocking lapse of taste — she’s being rewarded by the very industry she tainted.

In fact, two weeks after the canceled book was to be published, it doesn’t look as if there have been repercussions beyond public criticism for either project mastermind Judith Regan or the chief executive who approved her idea, Miss Friedman.

Publishers Weekly even manages to spin the O.J. scandal into a triumph for Miss Friedman.

“This year, Jane Friedman led her company into the heart of China, India and the Internet revolution — and through the O.J. scandal — all the while exhibiting the grace and enthusiasm for which she is known,” its article begins. “By refusing to get drawn into the public outcry over Judith Regan’s decision to publish O.J. Simpson’s quasi-confessional, Friedman managed to distance the company from the book without openly confronting one of her publishers.”

That’s one way to put the fact that she remained silent while the Brown and Goldman families — and the rest of the country — denounced the unprecedented project she had approved.

Here’s another: Ron Hogan of publishing blog GalleyCat reported on Nov. 21 that the project’s cancellation “came as a surprise to everyone … especially, so we’re given to understand, those HarperCollins employees who were told by no less than Jane Friedman late last week that, although the book was controversial and offensive to many employees, the company had decided to stand by its publication and demonstrate a supportive silence to the outside world.”

It’s rather disingenuous, in fact, for PW to imply that the decision to pay a, let’s say hypothetical, murderer for his story was made solely by Miss Regan. As Newsweek reported, “Regan only had to present a general concept of the Simpson book to HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman to get the budget approved for the project, according to one person close to Friedman who doesn’t want to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak for the company.”

The executive even told Publishers Weekly she had a bad year: “Friedman admits that the period between the deal being made public and News Corp. canceling it was the worst week of her career.”

So why has she been given one of the industry’s highest honors?

Because she makes a lot of money. PW reports, “During Friedman’s nine-year tenure, HC’s revenues have increased from $737 million to $1.32 billion, due to a mix of acquisitions and organic growth, and profits jumped from $12 million to $167 million.”

Publishing is a business like any other. The industry often pays lip service to higher sentiments — they want to bring the public lasting works of art, they say — but the bottom line is what really matters.

Publishers’ avid chase for profits has had lovers of literature worried about the future of books for years. Now it has backfired — HarperCollins won’t earn anything off its disastrous project though it already has paid Mr. Simpson his millions.

Honoring one of the people responsible for a tasteless idea born out of pure greed shows the industry hasn’t learned its lesson. There are some things Americans simply won’t buy, no matter how much marketing goes into them.

But perhaps no one expects anything more noble from the publishing industry anymore. Writers of the big publishing blogs normally like to voice strong opinions — they improve traffic — but none of them seemed bothered that the industry’s biggest magazine chose to honor the person responsible for the industry’s biggest scandal of the year.

That might be the real scandal here.

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