Fabrications acknowledged, a bestseller is withdrawn
The Harvard Book Store in Cambridge had sold well over a hundred copies of Jonah Lehrer’s nonfiction bestseller “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” But on Tuesday, the remaining six copies of Lehrer’s book were pulled from store shelves at the direction of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book’s Boston-based publisher, since the book will no longer be sold.
The unusual move — prompted by Lehrer’s admission Monday to having fabricated quotes he attributed in the book to Bob Dylan — surprised many book-trade veterans, who have seen other well-publicized scandals roil the publishing industry in recent years.
“This isn’t unheard of, but it’s certainly not common,” said Harvard Book Store general manager Carole Horne, who has been in the business for 35 years. As for Lehrer’s fabrications, Horne added: “I don’t know how people think they can get away with this in this day and age.”
To date, more than 200,000 copies of “Imagine” have been sold in hardcover or e-book form. Released in March, the book debuted at the top of The New York Times bestseller list and has remained on the list for 16 weeks.
Houghton spokeswoman Lori Glazer declined to elaborate on the recall of Lehrer’s book, other than to say that books would be returned at the publisher’s expense and that it was Houghton’s decision alone, not Lehrer’s, to take such dramatic action. In her 21 years in publishing, Glazer could not remember another Houghton title being pulled from circulation in this manner.
Lehrer, 31, is a former Boston resident now living in Los Angeles. He has, in years past, been an occasional contributor to The Boston Globe’s Ideas section. In a statement released through his publisher Monday, Lehrer said, “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”
He also announced his resignation from his staff position at The New Yorker, a job he’d held only since June.
Edward Nawotka, editor in chief of Publishing Perspectives, an online trade journal for the international book business, called Houghton’s decision “a pretty extreme move” but said it may signal an attempt to curb future attacks on the book’s integrity — or to help restore, in the long run, Lehrer’s credibility as a journalist and author.
It’s possible, Nawotka noted, that Houghton could recall, correct, and later reissue “Imagine” in paperback. Or leave Lehrer to find his own path back to journalistic respectability.
Either way, he said, Lehrer’s situation is indicative of fresh challenges facing an industry in which commercially successful authors face “speed to market” pressures while pursuing other interests, such as blogging, magazine writing, lecturing, and making radio and television appearances.
“Someone getting the readership and recognition [Lehrer] has, you risk they may deliver manuscripts too quickly,” Nowatka observed. At the same time, publishers like Houghton — which emerged from bankruptcy protection in June, following a court-approved deal to eliminate $3.1 billion in debt — are under relentless financial pressure to produce commercial hits. Therefore they may be “more inclined to let things slide,” as Nowatka put it, when it comes to fact-checking, a process undertaken by newspapers and magazines to a far greater degree than book publishers — although newspapers and magazines, too, have fallen victim to fabricators like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass.
The authenticity of Lehrer’s work came prominently into question last winter, with the discovery of similarities between a piece published in the MIT alumni edition of Technology Review and one later posted by Lehrer on The New Yorker website. Other pieces written by Lehrer himself were recycled on his New Yorker blog, prompting a note of apology in June by New Yorker editor David Remnick.
It was not known whether this latest, more serious breach could cost Lehrer in ways that go beyond mere embarrassment or public contrition. According to John Taylor “Ike” Williams, a Boston lawyer and literary agent, book contracts routinely include clauses that hold an author financially responsible for deliberate misrepresentations or defamations in a work of nonfiction.
Should the publisher’s lawyers recommend pre-publication changes, and an author refuse to make them, he or she may be forced to return any advance money already received. The same penalty holds true if a work violates a clause in the publishing contract asserting that it is “original, true, and accurate.”
Given how most contracts are written, says Williams, it’s conceivable Houghton could face class-action lawsuits by disgruntled book buyers. “Once an author admits to taking liberties with a public figure, that’s serious stuff,” Williams commented. “This isn’t Bob Dylan’s sideman we’re talking about.”
Not only could Lehrer face paying back his advance against royalties, added Williams, but he could also be held liable for other losses incurred by Houghton, including the cost of returning unsold books.
Glazer did not comment on Lehrer’s financial jeopardy, if any. In its statement Monday, the publishing house said it was “exploring all options available to us” while taking the e-book version off-sale and halting shipment of physical copies.
A Columbia University neuroscience major and former Rhodes scholar, Lehrer has been a contributing editor at several publications, including Wired and Scientific American Mind, and a contributor to National Public Radio’s “Radiolab” show.
“Imagine” is Lehrer’s third book. His first two, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” (2007) and “How We Decide” (2009), were also published by Houghton. He did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment Tuesday.
Among other recent titles tarnished by scandal is Michael A. Bellesiles’s “Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture,” published by Alfred A. Knopf. It won a prestigious Bancroft Prize for history, later taken back after inaccuracies were discovered in its research and methodology. The young adult novel “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” written by Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, was withdrawn from bookstores by publisher Little Brown in 2006 after revelations the author had plagiarized from other works of fiction.
In an e-mail to the Globe Tuesday, Lehrer’s former Houghton editor, Amanda Cook, expressed her anger — and sorrow — over Lehrer’s missteps.
What he did “goes against everything I believe about journalism and is a betrayal of readers’ trust,” wrote Cook, who acquired and edited all three of Lehrer’s books. Now a vice president and executive editor with Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Cook added that she found Lehrer to be “incredibly smart, conscientious, and diligent.”
“I am sure that he is in a lot of pain right now and my heart goes out to him,” she wrote. “I hope he gets the help and support he needs.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org