Then that afternoon, Mr. Simonoff told The Observer that he had contacted four editors or publishers in recent weeks in order to gauge interest, just in case the exclusive with Mr. Burnham didn’t pan out. “When word got out within the past week or so, I got eight or nine calls from major houses asking to see it,” he said. “There was a lot of interest.”
Mr. Simonoff wasn’t done yet. That same day, he told Motoko Rich of The New York Times that “in the past three days, quite literally every house in New York City called and asked to see it.” He decided to pursue an exclusive deal with Mr. Burnham, he went on, to prevent the manuscript from leaking, and to discourage gossip about the dollar figure. Mr. Simonoff also noted to Ms. Rich that Nan Talese, who published A Million Little Pieces on her imprint at Random House/Doubleday and has staunchly defended Mr. Frey since the scandal, expressed interest in seeing the manuscript.
There was more. Mr. Simonoff was also telling Michael Cader of industry newsletter Publishers’ Lunch that, prior to last Wednesday’s announcement, he had approached “exactly four publishers about the possibility of working with James.” Three of them, he added, “were very keen” to see the new book, and “one of them didn’t say no, but had some reservations.” After he had those informal conversations, Mr. Simonoff continued, “at least another nine publishers” called him asking to see the manuscript.
Of course, reporters were coming to Mr. Simonoff as much as the reverse. But the unusual level of detail he was willing to provide led some industry insiders to conclude that his statements, however sincere, were strategically deployed in order to fashion an inspiring comeback story for his client. “It was supposed to create the appearance of industrywide acceptance,” one top editor told The Observer. “It creates the appearance that everyone wants to publish this guy, and it makes it seem as if he’s highly desired, that no one has any qualms.”
Speaking publicly about the number of people interested in a manuscript, the editor went on, particularly when one is dealing with a sale carried out on exclusive, is rare: “Usually you hear ‘a bunch,’ or ‘lots of people,’ or ‘everybody.’ Usually [the number] doesn’t matter.”
In the case of Mr. Frey, though, it made all the difference—the more people interested in buying his new book, the stronger the impression created that last year’s scandal was ancient history.
Mr. Simonoff said as much himself in an interview Monday: “My response to Michael Cader’s inquiry was to dispel the illusion that we were shopping this thing all over town and throwing it against the wall and seeing where it stuck,” he said. “The James Frey detractors like to imagine a universe in which no one would touch him with a barge pole, and, happily, as I told Motoko Rich, people seem genuinely eager to read James Frey’s novel. He is not a pariah in New York publishing circles.”
There’s no doubt some truth to these claims. Indeed, according to an editor at Penguin Group USA with knowledge of the situation, Mr. Simonoff discussed the manuscript with Penguin president Susan Peterson Kennedy, even though hers was the house that terminated Mr. Frey’s two-novel contract in the wake of last year’s scandal. Mr. Simonoff wouldn’t comment on Penguin or Riverhead specifically, but he did assure The Observer: “There is not a publisher I spoke with or communicated with—whether I called them or they called me—who was not interested in seeing the novel. There was no one who wasn’t interested in reading it.”
Still, not everyone in the industry is blown away. “It’s not a very powerful claim,” scoffed the editor quoted above. “I get 5, 10, 20 submissions a day. If it’s from a legitimate agent I never say, ‘No, don’t send it! Save the postage!’ No one ever says that.”
And at least one publishing executive who believes himself to be one of the eight or nine Mr. Simonoff has been referring to in interviews suggests that his interest in the book was significantly more passive than Mr. Simonoff has represented. “When I called, I was talking to [Luke] Janklow [of Mr. Simonoff’s employer, Janklow & Nesbit] about something else and asked him if, by the way, Eric really had Frey’s new novel,” said the publishing executive. “It wasn’t anything that struck me as so significant that I wanted to hunt it down. I was curious about it, if nothing else. Would I have stopped everything and read it? No.”
“It’s a bit of a fig leaf,” he went on, referring to Mr. Simonoff’s efforts to suggest that all is forgiven with Mr. Frey. Still, “it may have the virtue of being true, which is not a bad thing. This is publishing. We hire the handicapped.”
The publishing executive noted that Mr. Simonoff had reason to avoid an auction. “If there’d been an auction there would have been peer pressure,” he said. “The immediate reaction would have been, ‘You’re gonna buy a book from that scumbag?’”
The top editor agreed that Mr. Simonoff might not have gotten the numbers he was after if he’d tried to sell the book at auction: “Eric did exactly the right thing, because if it had been an auction I don’t think he would have had every house in town showing up,” said the editor. “I think a lot of people would have loved to see it, but there’s some distance between that and wanting to publishing it.”
Mr. Simonoff and the rest of the Frey team nevertheless remain heartened by the response they have received so far. “We wouldn’t be in the James Frey business if we didn’t believe in him as a writer,” Mr. Simonoff said.
Mr. Burnham too stayed on message when reached by phone yesterday, saying that Mr. Frey’s days of “purgatory and punishment” were sure to be almost over. “The point is he’s written a great novel,” Mr. Burnham said, “and by summer of 2008 people will be able to approach James Frey with a clearer mind. Time will have passed.”