A Lying Source Causes Expensive Headaches for a Writer and His Publisher

Only days ago, Charles Pellegrino was enjoying the sort of success that even an author with several books under his belt can only fantasize about. Pellegrino's Last Train to Hiroshima, published by Macmillan imprint Henry Holt, was published in January to rapturous reviews: The New York Times called it "sober and authoritative," and Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review. And James Cameron, who consulted Pellegrino (pictured) and his earlier books in the making of Avatar, has just bought the film rights. But the writer's glory has soured since news emerged that a key source had burned him by fabricating details.Pellegrino now plans to revise Last Train accordingly, and Henry Holt plans to publish the new edition: a costly, embarrassing headache for Holt and its new publisher, Steve Rubin, at a time that should have been celebratory.

Fact and Fiction

Last Train attracted attention both for its account of America's nuclear attack on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, and for revealing what was supposed to be a long-secret accident that killed an American soldier. But The New York Times disclosed on Sunday that a primary source on that accident was an unreliable source.

The source, Joseph Fuoco, told Pellegrino that he'd been a last-minute replacement on an observation plane tracking the bomb for engineer James Corliss, who had fallen ill. But Fuoco, who died at 84 in 2008, never did anything of the sort. Corliss had neither fallen ill nor ceded his spot on the flight. Worse, engineers at Los Alamos, N.M., dispute the claim that any nuclear accident had taken place before its detonation. Official Los Alamos historian Alan Carr told the Times that Pellegrino's book read "more like a technically dubious piece of fiction than a historical rendering of actual events."

With his source discredited by living witnesses and by documentary evidence kept by the Corliss family, Pellegrino knew he would have to make changes to Last Train to Hiroshima.

The Corrections

On Monday, Holt released a statement saying that a revised edition will be printed and released after Pellegrino finishes interviewing the Corliss family and other survivors of the bomb mission. Holt publisher Rubin says the changes would affect fewer than five pages of the text and one illustration, and that the new edition would include an author's note about the error.

Holt says it will not recall the 18,000 copies of the hardback that have shipped to booksellers, but one independent retailer says stores are permitted to ship their copies of the book back to Holt for full credit, swapping them for the eventual revised edition.

Mistakes aren't uncommon for first editions of nonfiction books. Some errors are caught after distribution and revised in time for the subsequent paperback edition. A larger error that's caught after editing but before distribution may warrant an erratum sheet, included with the printed books. Jonathan Franzen's 2001 novel The Corrections had a correction of its own: a note warning that two pages had been swapped inadvertently.

A Million Little Copies

The Pellegrino situation, though, is more complicated, and more expensive. How much money can Holt spend on the new edition? A rough estimate based on the calculations of several publishing executives paints a grim picture. About 7,000 copies of Last Train have already sold, according to Bookscan, which tracks about 75% of U.S. book sales. Some customers will want to return their copies for revised editions, but Holt may not lose much money on that front. The precedent here is James Frey's A Million Little Pieces: Random House offered vouchers for the value of paperback to customers who wanted to return it after learning that it was rooted more in fiction than memoir.

For Last Train, Holt must account for the costs of resetting and redesigning the affected pages, and reprinting the book; legal fees, to ensure Pellegrino's revisions pass muster; and shipping, boxing, warehousing, and returns that must be processed and credited. Redesign can run as high as $5,000, and legal fees may also be somewhere in the $5,000 ballpark. If Holt reprints the same number of copies, to match the original first print run, for between $1 and $4 per hardcover copy, that puts those costs somewhere between $18,000 and $72,000. Those other factors are part of a publisher's general overhead costs, but a rush to reprint the book after Pellegrino's revisions are compete could add anywhere from $2,500 to $20,000.
Holt's costs depend on how many copies of Last Train to Hiroshima are returned and reprinted. But it's safe to bet that the admission will cost the publisher anywhere from $20,000 into the six figures (an amount that may exceed Pellegrino's original advance for the book).

That might not sound like much. For a larger corporation, such an outlay may be akin to a canceled contract at a late juncture. But at a time when trade publishing is doing everything it can to cut its expenses and make a buck, the tall tales of a deceased source -- beyond embarrassing the author who trusted him -- have caused much financial distress to the publisher.
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