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Publish and Perish

A writer is only one book away from career disaster today. Just ask best-selling author Joe McGinniss what it takes to market a book once the scribbling is done.

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If he weren't Joe McGinniss, he might be a kind of archetype of an American writer. He's taken on big and diverse subjects, invented genres, engaged in mighty literary controversies, and for 30 years produced more or less best-selling books. But he is Joe McGinniss, and for various reasons -- a guilelessness and certainly an extraordinarily poor sense of his profession's politics among them -- he has tended to walk into literary disasters. The journalistic Establishment together with Kennedy partisans heaped a mountain of bad press on him ("mauled and devoured and eviscerated" him, he says) for his book on Teddy Kennedy (McGinniss imputed thoughts to Kennedy); Janet Malcolm -- the black widow of journalism -- made him the primary illustration of what is undoubtedly the most hyperbolic sentence (indeed what is the most-talked-about sentence) ever to appear in The New Yorker ("Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.") And now, with the publication of his ninth book, his American publisher has abandoned him, his English publisher has snubbed him, his Italian publisher has dumped him, two agents have parted ways with him, and he's set to go on trial in Italy for something called "criminal defamation."

E-mails from him started arriving early in the summer. Now, I am a veteran of the scorched-earth language and general performance art of the flame (as receiver and initiator), but his e-mails made a big impression. For one thing, there was an added authenticity to his rage because he did not really know how to use e-mail -- there was the visible cc: list (he had copied his friends, publishing acquaintances, and Don Imus), the odd formatting, and the interminable length. And then there was the subject of the ever-increasing thread: an author confronting his publisher. There was a blood feud here.

Throughout the summer, not only did more e-mails come -- the crazy-man rage extended to publishers in other countries -- but prior e-mails were forwarded from other writing friends who had just received them forwarded from still other friends.

It was over the top. It was, vividly, a picture of a writer disintegrating. It was bad. And yet compelling. It didn't take much to see this as something more than just one writer self-destructing, indeed to see it as another indication of the career of writing itself going up in flames.

It's a journalistic truism that when you want to learn what's really going on, you look for the least-stable person -- the crazy lady -- who will tell you things that others, for reasons of decorum and self-interest, hold back. McGinniss is the crazy lady.

For 30 years, McGinniss has made his living writing books. Not doing anything except writing books -- not teaching, not working for a newspaper or magazine, not writing screenplays -- has always been a rarefied place in American letters. But you could get there. It was possible to be a journeyman writer, a true independent, not hitched to politics, subject matter, genre, or form, writing about what interested you and what caught your imagination. Such careers -- Mailer-, Vidal-, Talese-, Halberstam-like careers -- were made not only of big books but of books between big books, of digressions, of piffles, of collections (almost nobody, save John Updike, can publish collections these days). The understanding was that along with the marketplace for books by celebrities, by statesmen, scholars, ideologues, and self-healers, there was a market for books by writers -- writer writers.

McGinniss, who had, at 26, changed the way politics is covered with his book The Selling of the President and then gone on to create three classics of true-crime journalism, decided in 1996 that he didn't want to write a book about O. J. Simpson for which he had been paid $1 million (McGinniss sat through every day of the Simpson trial). He wanted to write about soccer -- his midlife passion. Sometimes, in a writer's life, it is hard to tell the difference between writerly passion and bad career management -- sometimes they are one and the same thing.

His agent, the big-money Mort Janklow, believed this to be strictly bad management (McGinniss had to return the $1 million he'd been paid for O.J.) and refused to represent the soccer book, passing it off to a junior agent in his office and dumping the book altogether shortly after it was completed.

Still, on the basis of an eight-page proposal, the publisher, Little, Brown, paid McGinniss $250,000. The proposal described a book about a soccer team in a small town in Italy defying all odds and achieving championship status, something like Pawtucket heading to the World Series. McGinniss proposed to spend a season with the team.

This was, from the start, an unlikely bet. For one thing, McGinniss didn't speak Italian. For another, among the many things Americans are not interested in are anything to do with a foreign country and professional soccer. Still, as any publisher will tell you, it is all in the telling. Americans may not be interested in the particulars of Italy (quick: Name the prime minister. How 'bout an Italian writer?), but we are, apparently, interested in the romance of Italy -- hence, the surprise success of Francis Mayes's books about owning a house in Tuscany. And while Americans are surely not interested in soccer, they are reliably interested in come-from-behind stories of all kinds.


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