I think I’m going to assume that you’re more or less up to speed on black US football star O.J. Simpson and the murder of his wife Nicole, plus friend Ronald Goldman, in 1994.
Suffice it to say that O.J. was charged with murder and got off. Mainly because he paid for a massively high-powered legal defence team, which left the prosecution fighting well above their weight.
I wouldn’t wish to make too many broad statements here, but I think it is fair to say that most Americans, particularly white middle-class Americans, took the view that O.J. was in fact guilty as hell, verdict or no verdict.
A few weeks ago, a story surfaced that O.J. had written a new book in which he described how he thought the murders might have been committed -- speaking, as it were, from the point of view of someone who might have been there but wasn’t. Payment of $3.5 million for this book was mentioned.
Various notable and influential parties declared themselves outraged at the very idea of O.J. making any money out of such a book.
The book story was comprehensively denied by O.J.’s lawyer, Yale Galanter.
Then, last week, we learnt that there really was a book, called If I Did It, Here’s How It Happened. It was going to be published by Regan Books, part of the HarperCollins empire, which is itself part of Rupert Murdoch’s mighty News Corp.
Further expressions of outrage were then heard across the whole of America (and elsewhere). Just by way of example, abebooks.com did a quick and dirty survey of book buyers and booksellers and found that 97% of the former and 96% of the latter declared that they wouldn’t touch a book of that kind.
And then, yesterday or thereabouts, Rupert Murdoch, the News Corp boss man himself, announced that he personally had decided that the O.J. book project would not go ahead. Neither would Fox TV (another Murdoch/News Corp enterprise) be broadcasting the interview with O.J. which had been recorded by Judith Regan, head of Regan books; in that interview, it was said, O.J. as good as confessed to the two murders.
The Murdoch decision is announced in today’s UK Times, which is yet another News Corp publication, of course; and for a possibly more objective account of the decision, you can go to the Independent.
I think I will leave all the moralising about the O.J. publication to others, and just concentrate on a few aspects of the publishing process that I find intriguing.
First, I find it interesting that this book was signed up by Judith Regan. This lady has quite a publishing history, and has been variously described as ‘the enfant terrible of American publishing’, the ‘angriest woman in the media’ and a ‘foul-mouthed tyrant’. A former friend (former, I note) described her as ‘the highest functioning deranged person I've ever known.’
Regan has issued a 2,200 word statement on why she decided to publish If I Did It, and if you care enough about this case to have read this far, I recommend that you read the Regan statement in full. Some will regard it as over-emotional, and excessively personal, and it certainly rambles a bit in places; overall, however, I think it constitutes quite a reasonable rationale for publishing the book; and it also constitutes a pretty good defence of publishing controversial and ‘offensive’ material in general.
Then there’s the TV interview. Regan is no stranger to TV. She once had her own show on Fox, called Judith Regan Tonight. Buried somewhere within the mountain of print and talk which has already accumulated about this matter, there may be a clear statement as to who created the O.J. interview and who owns the rights to it. But I would be surprised, and disappointed in Ms Regan's smarts, if she wasn’t the ultimate owner.
Next, I wonder who actually wrote the new O.J. book. I think we can safely assume that the former football star did not pen it himself. Neither am I being entirely frivolous when I say that I wonder if O.J. actually read what his ghost produced. Many a UK sports star has cheerfully admitted to never having read his own ‘autobiography’, and indeed Roy Keane used that assertion as the main plank in his defence when challenged about the contents of his book.
Who first dreamed up this idea? And who owns the rights to If I Did It? Regan says that she didn't pay O.J. directly. ‘I contracted through a third party who owns the rights, and I was told the money would go to his children.’ If nothing else, this is an unusual way to write a publishing contract, and, judging by his reported statements, O.J.’s usual lawyer knew nothing about it. Publishers Lunch says that Attorney Yale Galanter told the NY Post that he had first learnt of the deal on Monday 13 November. That was the day when Regan recorded her TV interview with O.J., and by that time large numbers of copies of the book had surely been printed.
Speaking of numbers printed, Regan/HarperCollins have not officially announced a figure for the first printing, but Publishers Lunch says that ‘the initial planned cap of a 300,000-copy laydown was exceeded, perhaps by as much as another 100,000 copies. These numbers are essentially confirmed by Harper Canada CEO David Kent in the Toronto Star.’
Now that is one hell of a lot of books. Even 300,000 hardbacks occupy a huge amount of warehouse space and weigh – what? – hundreds of tons? So what’s going to happen to them? They’re going to be pulped? It’s a good many years since I pulped any hardbacks, but I seem to remember that it was technically very difficult; not like paperbacks. And what is the ‘shrinkage’ on this pile of books going to be? In other words, how many of them will walk out of the warehouse of their own accord, soon to surface on eBay? Lots, I expect.
Then there’s the minor problem of contracts. The ‘rights owner’ – as yet unidentified, as far as I know – presumably has a contract which calls for publication. Publishing contracts normally do. If the contract has been unilaterally cancelled, I would expect said rights owner to be able to argue for a considerable sum in compensation. Not to mention the ghostwriter, who may well be in a for a cut of the royalties.
All of that being the case, how come, I wonder, that Rupert Murdoch has had a sudden fit of conscience, outbreak of umbrage, sudden attack of ethics?
My guess is that he hasn’t had any such thing. Rupert has just done some figures on the back of an envelope. He has calculated the cost of dumping this project, and has worked out, without too much difficulty, that it is much less than the cost (to News Corp overall) of letting it go ahead.
Lots of outraged customers, stakeholders, and shareholders, can cause quite a lot of damage to News Corp, far outweighing the potential profit. HarperCollins may be a big company in publishing circles, but it constitutes, as someone once said, but a single pixel on the News Corp screen.
In other words, I see the Murdoch decision not as censorship, which I would object to, but as pure commerce. As such it makes sense.
Other businessmen, however, will also have their calculators out, and will be able to do quite different sums from those of Mr Murdoch. My insights into American culture are these days obtained by, so to speak, squinting through a keyhole into a large room; in other words, I only see a small part of the whole picture. But, ignoring for the moment the noisy Disgusteds of the US equivalent of Tunbridge Wells, my guess is that there are vast numbers of punters out there who would be quite willing to shell out, say, a discounted $20 or so for the O.J. confession.
I would be willing to bet, but for one little thing, that, within twelve months, some other publisher wll have picked up the rights to If I Did It, published the book, and had a number one New York Times bestseller with it.
And what is that one little thing which I think might get in the way of a new publisher for If I Did It?
Ah yes. It’s the fact that we live in the digital age. Where there is a demand, and where there is an expressed intention to suppress the object of desire, we can safely guarantee that somebody, somewhere, will digitise a copy and spread it around.
My wager is that, before too long, the text of If I Did It will be released, by a pirate, online. And so will the video of the TV interview.
Even those unauthorised releases might not entirely kill off an authorised version of the book. Far from it. But if the releases do happen, and if they take away the market for the book, then the rights owners of both book and TV show have an even stronger case for compensation from News Corp.
More, I suspect, later. This one will run and run.
If I Did It wikipedia