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A Million Little Questions

Thanks to Oprah Winfrey and her influential book club, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey was the best-selling nonfiction title last year. This harrowing account of drug and alcohol addiction moved readers, at least in part, because they believed the author was describing hard-to-believe but actual events.

Thanks to Oprah Winfrey and her influential book club, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey was the best-selling nonfiction title last year. This harrowing account of drug and alcohol addiction moved readers, at least in part, because they believed the author was describing hard-to-believe but actual events. However, a blistering investigation by The Smoking Gun questioned the veracity of the book, and now Frey has acknowledged fabricating parts of the story, including significant events. The controversy raises more than literary issues. This is a fascinating case study of a business crisis. Let’s have a look:

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Question No. 1: Should Doubleday offer a product recall? That’s what automakers do when a car proves problematic.

No. 2: Should Doubleday include a disclaimer in any subsequent editions of the book, similar to the one in the sequel?

No. 3: Do we need a new bestseller category for memoir? Nan Talese, who acquired A Million Little Pieces for Doubleday, says that memoir falls somewhere between fact and fiction because it’s based on memory, which is naturally unreliable. On the current list, Frey’s book is included in nonfiction, which is simply the wrong category, she believes. Gay Talese, her husband and a renowned writer in his own right, argues that there is no middle ground: A book is either nonfiction or fiction, and nonfiction writers don’t take liberies. (Imagine dinner at their house this week.)

No. 4: Should publishers be held accountable for fact-checking the books they publish?

No. 5, 6, and 7: Should the controversy change the way that booksellers market the book? Should they acknowledge questions raised about it with something like “a note from the owner”? And should they offer a more liberal return policy for readers who feel duped?

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No. 8: How accurate should a memoir be before we call it fiction? Last night on Larry King Live, Frey, who looked uncomfortable in the spotlight and was about as forthcoming as Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, said that only five percent of the book was in dispute, and that this range was acceptable in memoir.

And skipping ahead to No. 1,000,000: Should The Smoking Gun get a commission from the sales generated by all the publicity surrounding its investigation?

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About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug.

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