Not that anybody would ever ask, but if a book publisher offered me a $1 million advance to write a book about the Amanda Knox murder case, I’d turn it down.
Given the circumstances of this case and the nine-ring circus surrounding it, I just can’t see how an author could a) write a good book that would b) sell very well.
Why do I think this? Here’s 11 reasons why I wouldn’t touch this story with an 11-foot pole.
1. What Really Happened? Given the gaps between the forensic evidence and the statements of the witnesses and the accused, I think it’s almost impossible to put together a coherent, factual narrative of what actually happened that late fall night in 2007 when Meredith Kercher was killed. A narrative without bias, that is. How does a writer objectively decide whose statements are true and which are lies? The Italian justice system made a mess of it … how can one writer improve upon that? Not saying it can’t be done, but in my view, it would take a team of Ph.D-level criminologists working for months to pick everything apart and put it back together. There’s just an overwhelming volume of stuff to sort through, only some of which is probably reliable.
2. Can You Walk The Tightrope? The nine-ring circus surrounding the case is part of the story. Given the sheer volume of blather and shrieking from all quarters, how does a lone writer pick through it all and pull out only the most representative and worthy of anecdotes and perspectives while still keeping the core narrative moving forward? And without plumping the book up to an untenable page count?
3. Will You Develop Stockholm Syndrome With Your Story? What’s more likely to happen, given the senationalist bent of the case and its polarizing nature — the people who most closely follow the case have split off into “she did it” and “she didn’t do it” camps — is that more than one book will be written with one of those points of view. I’m sure there’ll be “Amanda Knox: Victim Of Alien Justice” paperbacks just as much as I’m sure there’ll be “Amanda Knox: The Succubus Of Perugia” pulp. These books will cherry-pick the evidence and testimony to support their points of view, much as at least half a dozen books did during the O.J. Simpson trial.
And what emerges? A version that may provide cold comfort to one side or the other — the family of a dead woman and the family of a woman who will likely be inside prison until she’s almost fifty — but ultimately leaves more discerning readers dissatisfied because they’ve been brought no closer to the truth. Writers who write books that don’t satisfy generally don’t have long careers.
4. When Should You Shut Your Piehole? How do you write a book that examines a) the minutiae of the case; b) the nine-ring circus surrounding it; c) the student expatriate experience; d) the Italian justice system; e) the Madonna/whore contradiction; and f) Italian culture … and keep it under 500 pages, let alone 5,000? I know I’d make myself crazy about 5,000 times over agonizing over what to keep in and what leave out. The salad days of comprehensive, 700-plus page true-crime tomes like Joe McGinniss‘ Fatal Vision and Blind Faith are a quarter-century behind us. In these risk-averse, cost-conscious-crazed times in publishing, editors are going to fight you over every word — and they’re going to win.
5. Will Everybody Talk To You? A lazy writer could slap together an insta-book based on media coverage and other public-record documents; a better one will write a better book because he or she has the tenacity and skill to develop key relationships with the people closest to the heart of the case. But is there one writer out there who will have access to everyone needed to write the most cogent and comprehensive book possible? Think about it: Amanda Knox, from prison, will cooperate with one writer … maybe. (And that writer will have to convince me that he or she did not trade advocacy for exclusive access.) Same with Raffaele Sollecito. Who will that writer be? Will that writer have equally strong contacts in both the Knox and Meredith Kercher families? Does that same writer have access to Mignini, the prosecutor, and other key Italian officials? I personally don’t want to read a book about this case, let alone write one, that has less than near-comprehensive access and perspective. (Part of the reason I’m working on the true-crime book I’ve got in play is that I have access to every single person at the center of the crimes. With one exception so far, everybody has agreed to share their stories with me. That comprehensiveness the only reason I believe my story will work, and will be worth reading.)
6. Are We Ready to Relive The Case? Don’t underestimate the burnout factor. Many of the O.J. Simpson books that came out once the verdict was rendered were not particularly strong sellers, I’ve read. And that was before the Internet — blogs, in particular — had become a major factor in disseminating news and commentary. In other words, in the mid-’90s, information about the O.J. case — despite the 24/7 cable-TV-commentary machine — wasn’t nearly as easy to get as it would be now. Today, however, you can find online just about anything you want to find on the Amanda Knox case. Seattle writer Candace Dempsey keeps a well-followed blog, as do people representing the Meredith Kercher side, and there’s several others, all with their own particular bent. Why them, one might well ask, would I want to pay for a book when I can find all the information I want for free online? And why, that same person might well ask, would I want to read more about the case when I’ve spent two years immersed in it on a daily basis through online coverage and commentary?
While there is something to be said about having a complete narrative in one source, it won’t just be one source. There will be more than one book, and probably upwards of a dozen or more once British journalists, American journalists and Italian journalists finish making their publishing deals — not to mention the family members and other insiders looking to cash in for themselves or raise money for other people. These will inevitably vary wildly in quality, and make the non-burned-out consumer’s choice a far more difficult one. How would my book stand out in this global cacophony?
7. Just How Much Hatred Can You Take? While the true-crime writer always runs the risk (and many would say “inevitablity”) of receiving threats of bodily harm, there’s been a toxic level of that in the Knox case. I’ve been following the sheer ocean of vitriol swamping Dempsey, who will have a book coming out next year called Murder In Italy on the circumstances surrounding the case. She even had members of her family targeted for harassment. I could put up with a certain level of that toward myself. But probably a lot less than Dempsey has — and I’d have just about a zero-tolerance policy for hate aimed at my family. I’m not sure I’d back away from a project in which I’d already invested a lot of time and money, but I would be very careful in picking and choosing my projects from the outset with that kind of acidic potential — and the “emotional beatdown factor” would be part of the consideration criteria. And in a case with global impact like the Knox one, there’s always the chance that the negativity associated with one’s name would stay firmly attached when it comes time to look for future projects — and negotiate future deals with publishers.
The author that comes to mind is Jon Krakauer, the onetime Seattle resident whose books include Into The Wild, Under The Banner Of Heaven and the recent Where Men Win Glory. But, in the public consciousness, I get the impression that Krakauer will always be “the guy who got a climber killed on Mount Everest” from his own role in the mountain-climbing tragedy depicted in his Into Thin Air book — an episode for which he was buried under an avalanche of vilification, to the point that he disappeared for several years. That stigma hasn’t killed his career, but it certainly slowed his momentum — and I think he’s no longer the widely celebrated and respected literary-adventure figure he once was.
I want Jon Krakauer’s career, but I don’t want to be Jon Krakauer … as unfair as that may be. And I certainly don’t want Candace Dempsey’s e-mail inbox. I can be tough when I need to be … but I don’t usually seek out situations where I’ll need to be as tough as I can possibly be. And on the Amanda Knox case, especially given all the other problems with writing the right book on it, I’d say “pass.”
8. Million Schmillion? One million dollars sounds like a fantastic amount, but think of how fast that would evaporate in the Amanda Knox case. Between the costs of travel, the costs of the lease needed to stay in Italy for several months or even a year or more researching the case and covering the trial, the costs of meals and greasing the palms of Italian officials (where pay-for-play is much more widely the custom than in America, if that’s possible) and the costs of subsidizing a life back home, I’d think that million would pretty well evaporate within a year or so. And that doesn’t even include post-publishing costs like publicity and book tours, which publishers increasingly expect authors to cover themselves.
And God help me if my book doesn’t “earn out,” in industry parlance. If my book doesn’t sell well enough to cover my publisher’s expenses — including my advance — then not only can I expect to never see a royalty statement with a positive balance, but given the financial failure of the book, my chances of getting a decent deal for any future project in this economically-crushed, risk-averse time in publishing is somewhere between “slim” and “none.” And, as I’ve said before, I think the chances of an Amanda Knox book being a huge Sarah-Palinesque bestseller are equally between slim and none. I could be wrong, but I think I’ve got pretty good reasons for thinking I’m not.
9. Does It Keep Good Time? There’s a lot of bad timing all around. Let’s say that I successfully pitched my book to a publisher once it became clear that Amanda Knox was headed to trial. I would do so having no idea how long the trial would last. Let’s say my publisher gave me a deadline well in advance of the verdict, which they almost certainly would given the publisher’s need to meet the demands of its marketing arm to slot the book into a firm schedule for promotion purposes. What kind of book would come out of that? And who would want to read a book about a case that ends with no resolution? I sure wouldn’t … and I sure wouldn’t want to write a book like that.
Then again, let’s say my publisher agrees to let me deliver my manuscript after the verdict. My guess is that I’d need a minimum of two months to finish writing and a minimum of four months for several rounds of revisions. The publisher would then, I think, need a minimum of eight months for legal review, marketing plan development and all that other fine-print crap that publishers do. Then it has to fit into a scheduling slot in its catalog. I think it would take, altogether, a minimum of 18 months after the verdict for the book to show up at your neighborhood Barnes & Noble. Now, while I’m sure there’s still interest in the Knox case, I’m also sure that most of the people in the world will have moved on. There’ll be other sensational murder cases, other pretty and pathetic young women in distress, other things to chatter about on Nancy Grace’s TV show. Unless the book promises to be a shocking expose of lies and corruption — and actually delivers to the point that a retrial is possible — I can’t see the book as something a significant number of people will pay $28.95 for in the summer of 2011.
10. Does Truth Get In The Way Of A Good Story? While noble crusades against injustice make for good fiction, they rarely make for good nonfiction. One, they’re just not 100% reliable. If the author has an agenda to, say, prove Knox’s innocence, he or she will mold the facts to fit that premise — whether or not they’re intending to do so or even aware that they’re doing so. Two, the narratives behind the injustice and the crusade are often complicated, with all sorts of undisclosed motives, and don’t lend themselves well to coherent narratives. And three, it’s likely that nobody will care except Knox’s true believers, and while they might buy the book out of loyalty to the cause, chances are they already know or embrace 95% of what’s in the book.
11. Is This Really A Satisfying Career Move? What it comes down to is this: I just wouldn’t want to do it. I have no desire to build my name and my fame by riding a brief but intense wave of bottom-feeding media to its inevitable crash upon the sands of the public’s short attention span. I’d much rather find good stories of human character and motivation that the public doesn’t know about, so I can make them feel like they’re getting something worth their while from me that they can’t get anywhere else. That’s what books represent to me — the opportunity to offer something new to know, not something that amalgamates what we largely already know. But hey, that’s just me.
None of this should be taken to mean that I don’t wish every success to those who have decided to undertake a book about the Amanda Knox case (check that; I hope anybody pumping out an insta-book crashes and burns and suffers painful boils). Everybody’s honest sweat and toil in this business should be rewarded in equal measure.
In fact, thanks to a mutual friend, I may soon be able to line up Seattle author Candace Dempsey for an interview about her book. As with my other interviews, I’m less concerned with what the book is about than how it is about it. Stay tuned.