I’m not going to take sides on whether the author of Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson, intentionally misrepresented events and people in the book or whether he has misused funds supposedly raised for his charity. Those charges will be examined ad nauseum in the coming days and weeks in the wake of the 60 Minutes piece this past Sunday. However, the controversy surrounding Mortenson and the book does point out, yet again, one of the failings of publishing in today’s world.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, Three Cups of Tea is purportedly about Mortenson’s adventures after an failed attempt to climb K2. According to the book, he wandered into a Pakistani village on his own, in need of medical assistance and the villagers took him in and cared for him. Moved by their sacrifice in doing so, when asked by one of the children if he would build them a school, he said he would. From that promise, according to the book, grew his charity and his efforts to build schools throughout the region.
Since the book was published, it has been placed on reading lists for high schools, colleges and Sunday School classes. Millions of dollars have been raised to help support the effort to build these schools. Mortenson has toured the country and beyond to promote the charity.
And that is where 60 Minutes comes in. According to their piece, there are questions about the accuracy of parts of Mortenson’s book. One of his companions on the trip detailed in the book said Mortenson had never been separated from the rest of the party. Another man, one identified as a kidnapper in the book, said he and his companions never kidnapped Mortenson. Questions were raised about how much of the money raised for the charity is being spent on charitable works and how much is going into Mortenson’s pocket.
As I said, I’m not going to take sides on whether Mortenson tried to pull the wool over the eyes of his readers and the contributors to his charity or if, as he has claimed, these so-called factual inconsistencies are the result of his co-author merging events from several trips into one — over Mortenson’s objections.
No, my concern here comes from the fact that a lot of this could have been prevented had Mortenson’s publisher done some simple fact-checking before the book came out. There was a time when publishers took responsibility for what they put on the shelves. A non-fiction book was checked not only for spelling and punctuation errors but for factual consistency and truth. But, as with so many things in publishing, that has changed. How often in the last decade or so have we read about publishers either recalling, canceling or putting disclaimers into books that had been highly touted as the latest hit in non-fiction?
Have publishers forgotten James Frey and his book A Million Little Lies? Frey appeared on Oprah and she touted his memoir detailing the horrors he survived as an addict and convict. Then, gasp, it turned out that much of the book was nothing more than an exercise in creativity. The result saw an inclusion in later editions of the book from Doubleday that included not only an author’s note but also a publisher’s note/disclaimer.
There are others. In 2009, Penguin brought out Matt McCarthy’s Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit. When the so-called facts in the book were challenged, “Carolyn Coleburn, the vice president and director of publicity for Viking, which is an imprint of Penguin Group USA, said, “We rely on our authors to tell the truth and fact-check.”
Also in 2009, Penguin once again had a memoir exposed as being anything but completely factual. In fact, it canceled Herman Rosenblatt’s memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived after it was revealed that, while he was a Holocaust survivor, he’d fabricated the details of how he met his wife. (Also of note, this is another book that took in Oprah.)
In 2008, Penguin was hit with Love and Consequences which was supposedly a memoir of growing up in South Central LA as a mixed race foster child. It turned out this book by Margaret Seltzer was nothing but pure fabrication.
And now we have Three Cups of Tea, from Viking — which is, iirc, part of Penguin Group. Perhaps Viking and Penguin simply had a bad spell of several years when they forgot they ought to be doing the fact-checking and not relying on their authors, people trying to get them to buy the book for publication, to do so. Somehow, I don’t think it is an isolated incident or time. All it takes is a simple search to see the number of books that have been presented as non-fiction that are, at best fictionalized memoirs. There has to come a point when publishers remember that fact-checking is part of their job.
The New York Times reported yesterday that Viking is now going to “review the book and its contents with the author. . . .” Of course, this only came about after the 60 Minutes story, not when questions first started being raised about the factual accuracy of the book. According to the Times, “The statement was a strong signal that Viking, an imprint of Penguin, is not convinced of the accuracy of Mr. Mortenson’s book.” Gee, you think?
The solution is simple. Publishers need to put quality control back into the process. They need to fact check, they need to proof read and they need to copy edit their titles. They need to do this on a consistent basis, not hit and miss. A title like Three Cups of Tea is actually quite easy to check. Mortenson named names and sited dates. How hard would it have been to pick up a phone or send an email to the people involved? How hard would it have been to ask Mortenson for supporting documentation? Once again, Penguin — and publishing in general — fell down.
My biggest concern is that this is indicative of the attitude of so many in publishing today. They worry more about getting a title out that looks like it might make them money than they are about verifying the product. If this had been a food or drug item, it would have been recalled long ago and the manufacturer fined. There is no such penalty for publishing. The only check on it is the court of public opinion. Is it any wonder so many people have a bad taste in their mouths about the industry — and the high price it charges for books — today?
More than that, as a writer, it appalls me to see this attitude from a major publisher. If the publisher isn’t going to be the gatekeeper — something they keep saying they are whenever they try to dissuade us from bringing our titles out directly in digital format — why should we go to them. much less trust them to do right by us? Frankly, their imitation of Marie Antoinette eating cake is going to wind up the same way it did for poor Marie — their business is going to be killed as they release the metaphorical guillotine because of their own don’t give-a-damn attitude.
The real losers in this latest almost-scandal are the kids who do rely on Mortenson’s charity for new schools. And that is a shame.
Links of interest: