Be Writer Safe – Look Both Ways Before Crossing the Street

A woman is mighty mad at her doctor because he used her as the subject of his book, THE ADDICT: One Patient, One Doctor, One Year, published in 2009 by William Morrow, without her knowledge or, obviously, her permission.

In reading the article, two glaring thoughts bump around in the cavern that poses as my brain:

  1. Why did he do this?
  2. Where was William Morrow’s editor in all this?

As one who specializes in nonfiction, I am achingly considerate of a couple things:

  • Content. Is it real (hello, Greg Mortenson and James Frey)? If I can’t get satisfactory verification, then I walk away. Who needs the aggravation and possible lawsuits?
  • Permission. If someone comes to me with a biography or a story that involves someone other than the author, I need to see proof of permission. Again, who needs the aggravation and possible lawsuits?

I’m surprised the editor went to submission committee without having those permissions in place. And who knows? Perhaps the good doctor did provide “permission” and the editor didn’t follow through by contacting the subject of the book. I took note that William Morrow isn’t included in the lawsuit, so I dearly hope the editor covered her asterisk.

However, this lawsuit could adversely affect sales, which would make William Morrow, and the doc’s editor, ready to mainline cheap gin. I know I would. To be honest, this sort of thing really takes the jam out of my jelly doughnut because dishonesty is so destructive. The fact that this doctor would break the HIPAA Privacy Rule is beyond stupid, and could end up costing him his medical license, or at the very least, a healthy fine and swift kick in his dangling participles.

But this goes to an even deeper level, and that’s the fervent desire to be published. I use the analogy of crossing the street. Back in the Early Jurassic Era, when I was a wee bairn, I was standing on the corner with my sister – who is infinitely wiser and nine years my senior. I saw something across the street…a candy store…and made ready to dart out like a heat-seeking missile.

My sister grabbed my hand. “What? Are you barking mad? That truck almost smacked you!” She was right. Barreling down the boulevard was a huge garbage truck. I reflected upon the ignominy of meeting The Great Cosmic Muffin at his Pearly Gates and telling him I’d been wiped out by a garbage truck, of all things. Surely, some better demise awaited me…and when I was old and feeble.

My fervent desire for a sugar fix put blinders over my eyes, to where my sister had to save my sorry ass. So who is the one who saves your hide in your never-ending dream to cross the street to Published Land? Are you willing to be smacked upside the head by garbage trucks, or are you more careful about your safety and wait for the Crossing sign to light up?

This doc/author facing a lawsuit (and probably a “go stand in the corner” edict from his editor) didn’t have anyone holding his hand, telling him to wait until it was safe to cross the street, and he was like my six-year-old self who couldn’t wait, or didn’t care, to do things the right way.

Make sure you take better care!

8 Responses to Be Writer Safe – Look Both Ways Before Crossing the Street

  1. D. D. Syrdal says:

    It doesn’t seem like the big publishing houses bother to verify anything anymore, judging by recent events. I doubt the doctor in question will get more than a slap on the wrist from the medical community. It’s incredibly difficult to get them to turn on one of their own.

  2. Susan Wilson says:

    Better to self publish if you want to be 100% factual, accurate and honest – but your book might not sell much. Publishers put pressure on authors to embellish so books can sell, and in this media day and age there is a tendency to give authors who have charisma and public persona to talk in public a better deal than the best writers, who are often recluse.

  3. Miss Price,
    I have been following your blog for a couple of weeks now, and I wanted to thank you for all the incredibly valuable insights you provide. Please keep up the good work. Oh and this particular entry? Priceless. {*~*}

  4. Susan, if someone goes DIY, they still run the risk of being sued, so I don’t see the advantage.

    Your assertion that publishers pressure authors to embellish their stories is interesting. Do you have facts to back that up? There may be isolated cases where an editor runs amok, but nearly all editors are not predatory beasts waiting for the chance to exploit innocent authors for their own personal gain. If that were the case, you’d hear a lot more stories about author abuse.

    This doc/author came to his publisher with a story. He had to have known this broke HIPAA. No one forced him to write this story. He chose to, and now he has to face the music. I’m grateful his publisher isn’t involved in the lawsuit, but I fear the publisher may experience some financial blowback from this experience, which is unfortunate.

    You also mentioned that publishers sign books whose authors have charisma. Do you have facts to back that up? It’s no secret that authors need to be a part of the party when promoting their books, but it always comes down to the story and the ability/confidence the editor has that it’ll sell. Apart from that, I’m unsure what this has to do with the topic of this particular post. But I appreciate your comments.

  5. D. D. Syrdal: You posit that editors don’t verify anymore. Can you please give me some examples? The books that are discovered as lies are vastly few when compared to the huge number of books that are published every year. That would tell me editors are exercising far more scrutiny than you realize. I’ve tossed many books that seemed so fantastic that I requested verifiable proof. We all have to be careful because lawsuits are extremely costly and can put a smaller publisher out of business. It’s no less comfortable for the big guns.

    The problem with the doc/author story is that we don’t have all the facts, so the best we can do is conjecture how much the editor knew. As I said in my post, it’s possible the editor had the proper permissions from the doc/author, which would clear them of any malfeasance, and would protect them from being named in the lawsuit.

    My point with this post is a heads up to authors that lying or taking short cuts sucks stale Twinkie cream, and at some point, they’ll be found out. Not only do authors put their own reputation at risk, but they possibly take their publisher down with them. Someone who is that anxious to see their name in lights surely needs the services of a good shrink.

  6. D. D. Syrdal says:

    Ah, well, actually I was reminded of a couple of comments you made on another post about how nearly impossible it is to vet non-fiction:

    http://behlerblog.com/2011/04/19/i-once-caught-a-fish-this-big/#comment-8614

    Maybe I misunderstood what you were saying?

  7. No, you didn’t misunderstand.There’s a huge difference between vetting an isolated case of creative memory in an otherwise true story (like Three Cups of Tea) and book where the entire content is highly dubious (like A Million Little Pieces).

    Equally easy to vet would ave been THE ADDICT: One Patient, One Doctor, One Year by simply contacting the subject of the book. But if the doc/author provided proper permissions, then it’s doubtful the editor would have gone further with the vetting process.

    It’s a fine line we walk between covering our Book Antiqua so as not to invite lawsuits, and publishing a great story. We have to rely on a gut feel about whether we can trust a story or not. Editors, by nature, don’t tend to believe that everyone is lying, but in this time of low morals and general nitwittery, perhaps our thinking will change.

  8. Laura W. says:

    In fiction, people just leave the “not based on real persons or events” note at the front of their book, so they’re in the clear to cannibalize exes and parents in the name of creative license. ;) Nonfiction is rather more serious…

    Susan — your logic seems backwards to me. Yes, publishing sometimes screws up, but the entire point of the business is to have gatekeepers who catch these things. The fact that we even know about this case points to that; if it was self-published, it may not have gotten the circulation that let it come to the subject’s attention. In self-publishing, I would expect to see more violations and errors of this kind, precisely because of the lack of a large audience, attention, screening, etc. It would be much easier to get away with.

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