Wednesday, 13 August 2008

A book story

"Literature, from the very beginning, has had a single enemy, and that is the restriction of the expressed idea. It turns out, however, that freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea, because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors, and the voice of truth becomes drowned out in an ungodly din? When that voice, though freely resounding, cannot be heard, because the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when the most falsely?"

- Stanislav Lem: His Master's Voice

I borrowed this as one of the favourite quotations of Felix Grant at The Growlery, as it's especially pertinent to an interesting success story that's all over the papers in various forms at the moment: from the Mail on Sunday Author, 93, uses profits from first novel to buy massive house to spare friends misery of care home, or the Telegraph, First time author, 93, saves friends from care homes with book advance. This is the story of Lorna Page, who "has bought a five bedroom house for £310,000 after securing a significant advance for her thriller", A Dangerous Weakness, and plans to use the home to assist friends in getting out of care homes.

This is such a near-perfect news story - human interest, triumph against the odds, altruism in action, right-on social message - that it seems almost crafted to slip under the reality-check radar. It has a payload (a feelgood story) and shielding against critical analysis (only a nasty person would question the facts of a story of an old lady helping others out of unpleasant care homes).

However, I feel less nasty on seeing I'm not the only person to spot that the book is published by AuthorHouse: a print-on-demand self-publishing or author services publisher. Such publishers don't give advances. I suspected this would be the situation the moment I first saw the story in the Aug 9 Western Morning News: local press stories about unlikely first novelists almost invariably boil down to self-publishing in some form. So, to be blunt, it's vanity-published - which would make an advance, especially one significant enough to finance a new house, and becoming (as the Guardian story says) "suddenly prosperous on the advance and sales" extremely unusual. Elaboration of this point would be of interest; it doesn't appear in the June 26th PR Newswire press release. Somewhere, in the process of the press taking up this story, an exaggeration has crept in, and hardly a trivial one: portraying a self-published book of so far unknown prospects as a successful money-spinner.

The story seems to have spread worldwide; however, analysis of the logistics also has. See discussions of Tales of the Big Advance at Making Light. However, the exaggerated version trundles on, with papers recycling the same factoids, as in the Guardian's Michelle Hanson's If only Mavis had a Lorna Page with a big house to save her from the crushing doom of these homes (Tuesday, Aug 12 2008):

Three cheers for Lorna Page, aged 93, who has just written her first novel, a thriller, and with the proceeds has bought a large house

...This week Michele read Blackmoor, by Edward Hogan ... She watched World at War, UKTV History, day after day in dark glasses, with her new cataract-free eye

Ms Hanson presumably hadn't bothered to read the Web, where aspects of this press coverage have been repeatedly questioned. Same goes also for Ros Coward, whose Guardian Comment is free piece, Lorna Page: the write stuff, also also assumes the truth of this success story.

Wednesday Aug 13: gold star to Christina Patterson of The Independent - Where poetry still has power - for going against the general adulation, and doing the proper journalistic thing of actually fact-checking: "Heart-warming stuff. Except that the book is published by AuthorHouse, a company in which the traditional flow of money for publication, from publisher to author, is reversed".

Skimming blog commentary, a frequent comment in defence of the mistake is that no harm has been done and someone may benefit. However, Issendai's Superhero Training Journal points out the downside: "Meanwhile, the story is suctioning common sense out of novice writers' heads as we speak".

Addendum: another gold star to BBC Radio 4's iPM for The 93 year-old and the big advance.... by Chris Vallance, who contacted Lorna Page's publicist and daughter-in-law, Cate Allen, who confirms that the bloggers were right about there being no advance.

Cate tells me that instead of receiving an advance, they paid a small sum to have the novel published, as is usually the case with self-publishing. They chose AuthorHouse because Cate is herself published there. They are hopeful that the book will make money, and that this will enable Lorna to help her elderly friends, but it is early days ... Cate also told me that some media reports "just made up facts" ... As for what she has been doing to correct errors in coverage, Cate says she now makes it clear to journalists how the story has been misreported, and she's encouraged Lorna to go online herself to set the record straight.

iPM is, unfortunately, just a slightly more official grade of blog, it's hard to say if this will filter through to mainstream news.

August 15: the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column likewise reports:
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 (93-year-old novelist gives home to friends from care homes, page 5, August 11), had been able to buy a big detached house for herself and three of her friends. Aspiring writers (and housebuyers) 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."

This correction, of course, will have no effect on writers who haven't seen it, such as the compiler of the Observer's Quotes of the week, August 17 2008, or the Calcutta Telegraph's Till dreams do us part.

Granted, the whole saga is a storm in a teacup with no major consequences whether the distortion of the story takes root or not. However, I'm interested in it as an example of how mistakes can propagate via the press and blogosphere. The next time, it could just as easily concern something important.

- Ray


  1. This one sent me off on a chain of follow ups ... which doesn't seem to be over, yet.

    It found in me echoes from the newspaper destruction of a life in my "Barry George" post of 2nd August.

    The extent to which news is made up or taken on little evidence frightens me ... the book story is enlightening in the matter of "chinese whisper" reporting.

  2. Yes. This one isn't world-shaking in its consequences, but it's interesting in showing the anatomy of how these things work. It is rather viral, in having both a "payload" (a very feelgood story) and "shielding" that discourages critical analysis (you feel a positive rat to doubt the veracity of an old lady doing something humanitarian).