McGinniss vs. Little, Brown: Publisher avoids the “s” word

McGinniss vs. Little, Brown: The publisher avoids the "s" word.

Topics: Books,

There’s been tension between writer Joe McGinniss and his publisher, Little, Brown, the Washington Post reported last Friday. The author of the bestselling book “Fatal Vision” feels that Little, Brown hasn’t pushed his new book, “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro,” as enthusiastically as it might have, and he recently sent an e-mail to Little, Brown’s publisher, Sarah Crichton, saying as much. (The missive was titled “Arrivederci, Sarah.”) Little, Brown counters that it bought several full-page ads for the book in the daily New York Times and in the paper’s Sunday Book Review. The company concedes that the book, for which McGinniss received a $300,000 advance, hasn’t garnered much television coverage, which would have given it a much-needed boost.

What’s gotten lost in discussions of the spat is the fact that even in those high-profile ads, Little, Brown was selling a book that simply wasn’t “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.” Set in the Abruzzo region of Italy, “Miracle” is a colorful and compelling entry in the venerable tradition of memoirs by American innocents abroad. But it’s also a book about soccer, an activity as alien to the United States as the metric system. The subject matter might have made Little, Brown’s sales reps leery, and insiders say that it made booksellers’ response to the title lukewarm. Perhaps that’s why Little, Brown’s campaign bent over backward to avoid the “s” word.

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The Times ads represent “Miracle” as an offbeat cousin of “Bella Tuscany,” Frances Mayes’ hugely popular memoir of the Mediterranean good life: “A bestselling American author left the comforts of home to pursue an obsession deep in the heart of Italy,” the ad copy reads. It carefully avoids mentioning that the obsession was a grade-B team that had a shot at the big time. The ad goes on to list some of the wacky characters McGinniss encounters in Italy, without ever specifying why he’s there to begin with.

It’s unlikely that a sporting memoir like “Miracle” will appeal to the audience that gobbles up lifestyle books on the order of “Bella Tuscany” and Peter Mayles’ “A Year in Provence” — that’s like assuming that people who love “Vertigo” will also go for “Mrs. Doubtfire” because both films are set in San Francisco. A more forthright approach would have been to position the book as a cautionary tale about a man’s love for sports and to solicit blurbs from the soccer-loving likes of Nick Hornby (“Fever Pitch”) and Bill Buford (“Among the Thugs”); the lack of blurbs is one of McGinniss’ beefs. The problem with that approach, of course, is that most Americans haven’t heard of Hornby and Buford, either. Which brings us back to the Little, Brown sales reps’ initial qualms about the title: It’s just not a terribly American subject. Perhaps McGinniss thought he could change that perception; as far as he’s concerned, his publisher dropped the ball.

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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