Thursday, September 7, 2006

2.3 Million Little Bucks


When I wrote about the James Frey controversy in January I ended the entry by observing, with some sarcasm, that there was talk of a possible class-action lawsuit, alleging fraud. There was one and apparently it has been settled. There you go.

The settlement reportedly calls for Frey and Random House to pay out no more than $2.35 million, which covers not only refunds but lawyers' fees and "an unspecified donation to charity." People who bought the "memoir" before the day the publisher acknowledged some of it was fiction would need to swear they thought it was a memoir and show proof that they bought and still owned it to be eligible for a full refund.

The "prove you own it" part is simple: for the hardcover, return page 163 and for the paperback, the cover. The "prove you bought it" part is nettlesome. It requires a receipt or "some other proof of purchase." They might decide just to accept affidavits.

So far, so good. But let's do some math, shall we?

According to Nielsen Media Research, quoted by Wikipedia, some 3.5 million copies of the book had been sold through May or thereabouts. About half were US sales. Using only the undiscounted paperback price for argument's sake (hardcovers were $23.95 but comparatively fewer are sold, and not many people pay the full jacket price anyway), Random House grossed $26 million in the US market alone (1,750,000 x 14.95 = 26,162,500). Add in the other half from overseas and conservatively call it a cool $50 million. The publisher's take is 60%: $30 million.

Frey's and Random House's exposure would be $2.35 million tops -- 8% of world gross (2,350,000 / 30,000,000 x 100 = 7.8%) -- again, using the best figures I can find. Let's say $850,000 goes for lawyer's fees and charity, leaving $1.5 million for actual refunds.

If only paperback buyers demand a refund -- to use an illustration that maximizes the number of disatisfied customers who could benefit from a fixed settlement fund -- then just a bit more than 100,000 refunds are possible (1,500,000 / 14.95 = 100,334). I'm not sure that the pre-January 26 sales figures are a matter of record, but "A Million Little Pieces" was a best seller long before the publisher revealed that parts of it were ficition, so I would expect the lion's share to be before. But let's stay conservative and say half of all US sales were before. That would be 3.5 million / 2 (US sales) / 2 (pre-acknowledgement) = 875,000.

Even if the "rebate effect" occurs -- something like 50% of rebates are unredeemed because people don't claim them, or don't follow instructions correctly -- Nearly 80% of the egible US poll wuold be disenfranchised -- (1.0 - (100,000 / (875,000 / 2))) x 100 = 77%).

So, the maximum exposure is about 8% of gross revenues and will almost certainly be a significantly smaller fraction of that. And a maximum of 6% of eligible fraud victims can be made whole (100,000 / 1,770,000 x 100 = 5.6%).

Neither Frey nor Random House admit any wrongdoing under the proposed settlement, as reported, though in a post-hoax editions"note to the reader" the author acknowledges making embellishments and alterations to factual events in his life.

Frey also stresses in the note that he believes " ... and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard." I am not sure if Frey is saying he did the best he could from memory, without concern for fact-checking, because that standard is OK in the memoir genre, or that he made embelishments and alterations, as he also writes in the note, to enable "the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require."

It seems only one or the other is possible -- that he went with his best unchallenged recollections or that his best memory lacked sufficient punch, so he jazzed it up.

Either way, "A Million Little Pieces" is still ranked about 1,000 at Barnes & Noble.

Good deal!

Blog or Perish

Professor Katie King makes a point to her "Introduction to Online Journalism" class at George Washington University

I had a great time and very little to do to get Katie King's Intro to Online Journalism class up and running with their own blogs. Katie has made blogging central to her instruction and grading system: to qualify for an "A" a student must publish at least one blog entry per week.

"These are not personal journals, but public writing by the student about the journalism industry," the course description says. "Students will use the blogs to report on and analyze themes and ideas presented in class, as well as to post writing assignments."

So, in this introduction course Katie has confronted her students with a very recent and compelling truth: Writers have at their disposal, for the first time, not only a printing press but an efficient means of delivery to anyone, anywhere.

In the era of blogging, writers are obligated to blog. I look forward to reading what the class does.

To any of the students who might be reading this: here are a couple of things I thought of later:
  • At the risk of again harping on about RSS, you ought to consider making the feed to your blog public, and subscribing to each other’s blog. There are some bad feelings by Facebook users over the service's unilateral decision to send alerts to friends when users update their own sites. But peer review, including posted comments and/or questions by your classmates, may be an interesting motivator.
  • Someone asked whether content was available from the Creative Commons organization. Not exactly, but they have a search interface to look for CC-tagged content via Google and Yahoo and on flicker and blip.tv.
Thanks again for being so attentive and receptive. Good luck! Please don't hesitate to email me any questoins, and I hope you will share your blogs with me.