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The Biography That Flew Off the Shelves

By Jonathan Yardley
Monday, November 1, 1999; Page C02

The chorus was just about unanimous. Friends, colleagues, family, readers: All weighed in last week with astonishment and indignation about the mess at St. Martin's Press, which managed to publish and then almost immediately unpublish a biography of George W. Bush, and all insisted that I mount my high horse to express my own astonishment and indignation.

So I clipped the news stories from the papers and watched the reports on the news channels. I put on my thinking cap. I wished I hadn't shaved off my mustache, because I needed to stroke it. In its absence I clucked a lot. Then I went into my Heavy Hitter Columnist mode, which consists of putting on a bow tie and assuming an owlish gaze, chin in hand.

But none of it did a bit of good. No matter how hard I tried, the outrage just wasn't there. That's because the uproar at St. Martin's, however foolish and self-incriminatory it may be, is anything except an aberration in the little world of American book publishing. It's business as usual, only with a few odd twists and turns.

In case you've been on another planet the past few days, you need to be told that St. Martin's, a very large and very ordinary publishing house, contracted months ago with one J.H. Hatfield for an unauthorized biography of Bush. The manuscript was duly delivered, titled "Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President," and given hush-hush treatment inside the house, apparently because Hatfield claimed that Bush had been arrested in 1972 for cocaine possession and that the record of the case had been quashed by a judge friendly to Bush's famous and influential father. Nearly 100,000 copies of the book were printed--in the little world of books, that's a lot--and many of them began the long passage into the bookstores.

Then--boom!--everything hit the fan. It was reported that Hatfield is an ex-convict who had done time for trying to arrange the car-bombing death of his employer; the attempt was a bust but the charges--which Hatfield calls a "smear campaign and character assassination"--stuck. It then developed that Hatfield not merely had neglected to tell his editor at St. Martin's about this but had otherwise edited his own biography. The publisher, under heat, recalled the book; then, last week, its editor in chief, Robert B. Wallace, provided the piece de resistance by resigning, asserting in so doing that he had not read the book.

It seems to be this last that most astonishes those who would have me excoriate Wallace, St. Martin's and Hatfield. So they and all others must be cautioned that there is nothing in the least surprising about this. Just as the president of a university cannot hope to know all members of its faculty, much less all its students, so the chief editorial executive of a large publishing house cannot hope to read all the books it issues. St. Martin's publishes 1,800 books a year, which means that Wallace would have had to go through five books a day to read them all.

The editor in chief, like the university president or any other boss, has to delegate authority, and has to trust those who exercise it. He--in book publishing these days, "he" more and more often is a she--assumes his subordinates will read and edit manuscripts with care and publish them in a manner befitting the expectations and traditions of the house. Ultimately he is responsible for the work they produce, but he cannot possibly be expected to oversee every step along the way.

It will be said, of course, that the highest officials of any publishing house should be in on the editing of a manuscript accusing a candidate for the presidency of the United States of serious charges, especially when the candidate vehemently denies them. Perhaps so, at least in the best of worlds. But in the first place, in the standard author's contract it is the writer, not the publisher, who is held legally responsible for what he writes, and in the second place, publishers' lawyers routinely vet manuscripts anyway. This was the case--so at least St. Martin's says--with "Fortunate Son"; Wallace and St. Martin's are at odds in many ways now, but they agree that he as well as the lawyers saw the controversial part of Hatfield's manuscript before publication, and that all cleared it.

Wallace may have fallen on his sword, but the responsible party seems actually to have been Thomas Dunne, impresario of Thomas Dunne Books, the St. Martin's imprint that published "Fortunate Son." Imprints are oddities, granted a great deal of independence on the one hand but kept within the corporate embrace on the other, and in this case this uneasy arrangement may have been at the heart of the problem. The parting blast that Wallace directed at Dunne certainly suggests as much.

But what really matters is that the loose editorial hand is the rule rather than the exception in book publishing. It may be cold comfort for readers, but most newspapers are edited far more tightly for accuracy and legality than are most books. What happened at St. Martin's happens, on a smaller and slightly less ridiculous scale, almost every day at almost every other publishing house. The operating assumption is that authors try to make their books as accurate as possible and that they tell the truth about themselves; neither assumption strikes me as in any way unreasonable, but in publishing as in life, sometimes something just slips through a crack.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.

 
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