Saturday, November 09, 2013

To Be Reclassified As Fiction

When news breaks, there are publishers who stand ready to produce the first account of that incident and then rush the book to print. It's a matter of riding on a brief spurt of public interest before something else attracts everyone's attention and the book is as dated as yesterday's news.

The attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, is exactly that sort of topic. Threshold Editions, which just happens to be a branch of the CBS empire, took on a manuscript written by a man who said he was an eyewitness to the devastating events that left four Americans dead. It was sure to be a big seller, with the author featured on a CBS news program to talk about his book. Author Dylan Davies had a strong platform from which the parent company of CBS and Simon & Schuster could launch a guaranteed best seller.

Marry in haste, repent in leisure?
British security contractor and fiction writer Dylan Davies

Threshold is pulling Mr. Davies' book after his interview on "60 Minutes" because it became clear that Mr. Davies was a fraud.

The author was on "60 Minutes" because of the tie-in with CBS and Threshold, a marriage that led to humiliation for news anchor Lara Logan. She was doing her job as a reporter, but had been handed a subject who was not who he claimed to be, and no one vetted him because he had this book to hawk and Viacom had a vested interest in the success of the publication. Since Viacom owns both Simon & Schuster, of which Threshold Editions is a part, and CBS, the whole mess was tied up in one nasty package that Lara Logan got to open.


In their haste to get a blockbuster book into the grasp of paying readers, Threshold did not thoroughly investigate Mr. Davies' bona fides. After the "60 Minutes" story, it came out that he was not really an eyewitness to the Benghazi attack. In fact, Mr. Davies told the FBI that he was not at the diplomatic compound on the night of the attack, even though in his book he says he was there and did some very dramatic things.

No one at Threshold bothered to check the facts, if it was indeed possible to check them. If the members of Congress can't get answers about what happened, how likely is it that a publisher could follow up with the other survivors to see if Mr. Davies was really the first person to identify the ambassador's dead body in a Libyan hospital?

Instead of waiting, Threshold went right ahead because they recognized how narrow the window of opportunity is for sensational reports on real events. Then there was the whole stonewalling of Congress issue, in which information was being withheld but here was Dylan Davies with a timeline of events, the eyewitness account that was not forthcoming from standard sources.

The book is being pulled from publication and Threshold is inviting all the booksellers who stocked it to return unsold copies.

At some point, it's likely that someone will sue Threshold and/or Mr. Davies for fraud, not unlike previous lawsuits lodged against other memoirists who proved to be fantasists. Refunds will be issued while Threshold issues apologies and the acquisitions editors skulk around the office trying to hide from retribution. When a company loses money because of employee error, the employee can count on being fired. Fingers will be pointing in multiple directions at Threshold, at least until the story dies down and something new comes to take its place.

But will someone do a better job of fact checking next time, or will the rush to publish a blockbuster and catch a profitable comet by the tail override the lessons learned by the Dylan Davies incident? Or could Threshold reissue the book as a work of fiction and hope nobody notices?

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