Friday, August 15, 2008

A Dangerous Weakness - and a lesson for newspapers to check their facts!

An interesting and somewhat misleading story has been circulating around the mainstream press this week, concerning 93 year old first time author, Lorna Page. From what I can tell, it started with The Guardian and rapidly spread to the other newspapers and radio stations.

After writing for most of her life, Ms Page has finally become a published author. This is no doubt a wonderful achievement, and one that she is justifiably proud of. The article went on to state that her book had been so successful and her advance so large, that she had been able to move from a modest one bedroom flat in Surrey, to a large house in Devon, worth over £300,000, taking several friends who had been in care homes, with her.

As Page says "Care homes can be such miserable places. You sit there all day staring out the window with no one to talk to. "I thought it would be lovely to give a home and family life to one or two people who would otherwise be sitting around there. It's nice for me too because at my age it's handy to have someone to live with. Now every book that sells will help towards making a home for someone."

She wrote her book, A Dangerous Weakness, three years ago, but like many authors, put it in a suitcase and made no attempt to find a publisher, until her daughter in law read it and encouraged her efforts.

I applaud her for doing this, and think it is very clever publicity, but there was one small problem. If you read the article carefully, it went on to say that her book was published by Authorhouse. As anyone in publishing will know, Authorhouse are the largest print on demand (self publishing) company both in North America and the UK, authors therefore pay them, not the other way round! There is then no advance. As for royalties, the book was only published a month ago, and because of the length of time it takes the publisher to get paid by the various stores and wholesalers who buy their books, plus of course the ridiculous returns system (not that this applies to most print on demand books), no author can expect to receive royalties until at least 3 months after publication. It goes without saying, that the author gets to keep the profits from any copies that they hand sell, through talks, book fairs etc or to friends.

I am quite understand why Ms Page decided to self publish, as let's face it, what 93 year old has the time to go through the agent/publisher cycle, waiting for up to three years to get published. She might be dead by the time this happens!

When the read the article again though, and look at the facts, something is clearly not right. While I acknowledge that certain sectors of the press do have a tendency to embellish (I have been at the sticky end of this myself), I was very surprised to see a newspaper of the calibre of The Guardian doing this. It is to my mind very sloppy journalism (it would not happen with the newsletter that I edit!), since the facts had clearly not been checked.
Having seen the original press releases, here and here, which make no mention of either a house or an advance, and understanding how the press work, it is easy to see how this could have happened. Newspapers tend to get their information from the various news agencies, whose websites press releases are posted on. Once one picks up the article, the others inevitably follow, until it becomes a game of Chinese whispers.
The article has since been corrected, but the damage has already been done. As The Guardian state: "The following clarification was printed in the Guardian's corrections and clarifications column, Friday August 15 2008 (today). In common with most other papers we reported that 93 year-old Lorna Page, "suddenly prosperous on the advance and sales" of her novel A Dangerous Weakness, had been able to buy a big detached house for herself and three of her friends. Aspiring writers (and house buyers) should note that her publisher, Authorhouse, is a self publishing company whose website states: "For a modest financial investment you can choose what you want for your book."
Their idea of a modest investment is clearly not the same as mine, as they charge almost twice what Richard does when you add it all up!
It is rather embarrassing to say the least, even more so for both Ms Page and Authorhouse. It is a tad misleading to say the least, and I get the feeling that her author advisor and whoever wrote that article will be busy cleaning up the mess (not to mention eating humble pie), for some considerable time.
The plot thickens when you realise that Ms Page's publicist Cate Allen, is none other than the daugher in law who persuaded her to publish in the first place. She is also published by Authorhouse and so recommended them to her mother in law (keep it in the family). Author and publicist have both gone on record stating that they have no idea where the story about the advance and royalties came from and pointing out that some of the newspapers "just made up facts". I can well believe this, but it still does not excuse what happened or why it took so long for the story to be corrected. I also to an extent feel that there is no smoke without fire, and suspect that one of these journalists must have spoken to Cate, as they must have got these ideas from somewhere. The article was too detailed for it to have been completely made up.
The BBC blog site has some interesting comments from listeners (dated August 12th) following an interview with presenter Chris Vallance, as well as author and publicist, indicating that their comments were taken out of context, so why did it take The Guardian another three days to correct the article which is on their website? Cate states that she is now making it clear to journalists what the true situation is, and how it has been misreported and is encouraging her client to do the same. I should think so too!