At 5:15 on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 29, James Frey informed his fans, in strikingly confident terms, that he had finished his first novel. “Done,” he wrote on his blog. “To be released in 2008.”
Two weeks later, The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Jonathan Burnham of HarperCollins had acquired the book after Mr. Frey’s highly regarded new agent, Eric Simonoff of Janklow & Nesbit—who also represents Jhumpa Lahiri and Vikram Chandra—had given Mr. Burnham an exclusive first look at the manuscript. Set in contemporary Southern California, the novel will be published next summer under the title Bright Shiny Morning by the house’s flagship Harper imprint. Mr. Simonoff would not confirm a report on the Web site Gawker that the deal was worth $2 million, though Mr. Burnham called the figure “far off” without elaborating.
Like much else with the meticulously planned rollout, the fact that The Journal got the scoop was no accident. According to Mr. Simonoff, HarperCollins gave them the story, deliberately passing over The New York Times, because the Gray Lady had been hard on Mr. Frey last year when he was found to have made up substantial portions of his best-selling addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces. “The New York Times has never been a friend to James Frey,” said Mr. Simonoff. “They kept the original Million Little Pieces story alive day after day after day.”
Thus Mr. Simonoff and HarperCollins took the first step in what will likely be a long, painstaking campaign to rehabilitate the career of James Frey. Since the deal was announced, Mr. Simonoff has been driving a publicity blitz designed to emphasize the enthusiasm with which the publishing industry greeted the news of Mr. Frey’s comeback effort. Mr. Simonoff’s goal, in the words of one top agent, has been “to say that he’s not tainted. To legitimize him and legitimize the book and to remove any stigma around it by saying that all of New York publishing was hungry to see it.”
Considering the humiliations Mr. Frey suffered when his fabrications were uncovered last winter—his agent left him, his publisher, Riverhead Books, killed his contract and Oprah Winfrey brought him close to tears on national television—that taint may be hard to shed. For a while there, after all, Mr. Frey was an emblem of everything said to be wrong with the publishing industry, which in the wake of the scandal stood accused of routinely marketing memoirs as nonfiction without conducting even cursory fact-checking, simply because true stories sold better than made-up ones. Some commentators went further still. Frank Rich of The New York Times connected what he saw as Mr. Frey’s smug, halfhearted dishonesty to the deception that led the U.S. to war in Iraq.
In response, Mr. Frey, predictably, talked about the relative nature of truth. “I hope the emotional truth of the book resonate[s],” etc., etc. But by the time a wounded Ms. Winfrey lectured Mr. Frey on the difference between an idea and a lie, the “emotional truth” spiel felt like little more than a dull, sophomoric excuse. Soon Mr. Frey moved to France and retreated from the public eye. His name seemed destined to be invoked only as part of the familiar litany of journalistic fabricators: Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair … James Frey.
That was then, though. If A Million Little Pieces taught us anything, it’s that readers love a good tale of redemption, and now that Mr. Frey is back with a new novel, the people who have agreed to help him sell it are going all out to convince the world that New York has forgiven Mr. Frey his sins.
When the writer, having moved back to New York last year, met Mr. Simonoff at a book party for Mr. Chandra in January, the two of them hit it off immediately, and shortly thereafter the author was in the Janklow & Nesbit offices pitching Mr. Simonoff on his latest project. In an interview Monday, Mr. Simonoff described Bright Shiny Morning as “a big, ambitious, sweeping social novel” that features “thousands of characters”— Mr. Frey himself not among them.
By February, Mr. Simonoff says, author and agent were in business, and Mr. Burnham, who had become friendly with Mr. Frey over the course of the past year, promptly expressed an interest in the book. From there, things fell into place very quickly: Mr. Burnham had the book in his hands eight days after Mr. Frey finished it. Four days later, by last Monday night, a deal was just about struck.
But a major part of Mr. Simonoff’s work was just beginning. Minutes after HarperCollins issued their press release, Mr. Simonoff was telling the industry blog GalleyCat, “When word began trickling out that I had a novel from James Frey, every publisher in town contacted me.” If he hadn’t agreed to sell it to Mr. Burnham on exclusive, he added, “there would have been a bidding war.”
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.”