Simon & Schuster Inc. could be kicking itself about a book it canceled, but the somewhat unlikely success of Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb hasn’t left its author, Bernard Lefkowitz, particularly happy, either. Despite front-page attention and a favorable review by Russell Banks in The New York Times Book Review , serializations in both Sports Illustrated and Ladies’ Home Journal , a paperback sale to Vintage Books and a TV-movie option by ABC, Mr. Lefkowitz still feels he’s been dissed.
This has a lot to do with the grim publishing scene at the moment, with commercial houses curtailing their commitment to serious, midlist nonfiction in favor of tabloidish blockbusters. Meanwhile, academic presses-such as the University of California Press, where Mr. Lefkowitz ended up-find themselves unprepared and underfunded to play hard ball with the big houses, big-time review outlets and big bookstore chains, even when the opportunity arises. “It’s still hard for university presses to make the leap into the mainstream and deal with that audience,” Mr. Lefkowitz said. So he did lot of jumping around (and up and down) himself.
Simon & Schuster was surprised to learn from a letter they received from Mr. Lefkowitz and his attorney, Steven Schechter, who is also acting as his agent, that the author had decided to dispute the “first proceeds” clause in his contract. Long a standard provision in many publishing agreements, the clause entitles a publisher to a percentage of a book’s initial royalties should the book, deemed unacceptable by the original publisher, be brought out by another press. (The University of California Press paid Mr. Lefkowitz a $5,000 advance for his manuscript, which they published in July; his advance from Simon & Schuster, he said, had been “in the six figures.”) Simon & Schuster spokesman Andrew Giangola said that Mr. Lefkowitz’s final editor at Simon & Schuster, Rebecca Saletan, “extended his due date several times, and then he finally turned in a book that was unacceptable. We haven’t initiated any legal proceedings as yet, and we hope to work this out.”
Mr. Lefkowitz is less confident. He told The Observer that the publisher’s reason for canceling his book-that his manuscript was “unpublishable and that they hadn’t been doing well with true-crime books”-had nothing to do with its quality. Originally signed up in 1989, when the Glen Ridge, N.J., rape case first came to light, Our Guys was essentially “orphaned,” he said, “because the editor who acquired it left the company, so it didn’t have any support.”
But the author had already sensed a problem. His original editor “couldn’t understand why I couldn’t write the book until after the trial, and that the criminal justice system was just beyond my control,” he said. “Nobody in the town would even talk to me when I started. I had to fly around the country to college campuses to track down kids from the high school, away from their parents and friends. Eventually, I was given an extension by Becky Saletan, but the price was cutting my advance by 30 percent.”
The book, about the sexual assault of a mentally retarded girl by a group of popular high school athletes in an affluent New Jersey town, was never intended as a true-crime quickie, Mr. Lefkowitz said. It is a cultural study of how kids are raised, about failed relationships between mothers and sons, and about the sexual behavior of American teenagers. Nonetheless, the manuscript that Mr. Lefkowitz eventually delivered to his editor in Berkeley, Calif., Naomi Schneider, was significantly streamlined from the approximately 1,200-page first draft he had handed in to Simon & Schuster. “I cut it by 10 to 15 percent,” Ms. Schneider said. “Not every book needs to be 230 pages, though. I didn’t want to compromise the rich ethnographic feel of the book, and show Glen Ridge in all its paradoxical ugliness and beauty.”
However, the university press, which was forced to close its New York office in 1995, was not able-or in Mr. Lefkowitz’s opinion, willing-to give the book the support necessary to bring it to the attention of reviewers, and thus book buyers. Mr. Lefkowitz, a former civil rights and antiwar movement reporter for the New York Post and an associate professor in creative writing at Columbia University, took the serialization into his own hands. He sent out “20,000 pages to at least 30 magazines,” he said, before Ladies’ Home Journal bit and Sports Illustrated committed to an unprecedented 12,000-word excerpt.
Unfortunately, when fans of these articles went looking for copies of Our Guys in bookstores, almost none were to be found: The initial printing of 4,000 had quickly dried up. “We did run out of stock a few times,” Ms. Schneider admitted, but she also said that the book was reprinted-in batches of 4,000-on four different occasions.
Indeed, when New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath recognized the timeliness of the book’s publication, coming as it did on the heels of the defendants’ sentencing, and ran a review on Aug. 3, Mr. Lefkowitz claims not enough books were available for other reviewers to pick up on The Times’ lead. Ms. Schneider was not aware of any shortage. “We always had copies of the books for the review media,” she said. However, the author also claims that when it came time for the paperback auction in September, not enough copies were sent out for potential bidders’ consideration-although Vintage, which won the book and will feature it as its lead nonfiction title next spring, solved the problem, Mr. Lefkowitz said, by “handing around its one copy from editor to editor.” Again, Ms. Schneider disagreed: “According to our rights person, he was able to get copies to anyone who was interested in bidding for the book.”
Still, Mr. Lefkowitz has not yet been able to convince Vintage to change the release date from next May to February 1998. “I thought it should be earlier, since there are no hardcovers left,” he said. According to Ms. Schneider, of the 20,000 hardcover copies out there, “about 16,000 to 17,000 have been sold, but hundreds and hundreds are with the wholesalers, like Ingram and Barnes & Noble.”
Mr. Lefkowitz has discovered one thing to be happy about. “It’s gotten a positive response from both the left and the right,” he said. “I even invited the guy who reviewed it for The Weekly Standard to my book party.” Of course, Mr. Lefkowitz hosted and paid for the party himself.