Behind book scandal

Times Staff Writers

As the publishing world reeled over yet another faked memoir -- this one by a supposed former drug-running foster child from South-Central Los Angeles who was actually raised by her middle-class family in Sherman Oaks -- those involved with the book’s publication tried to explain how they fell for the deception.

“Love and Consequences” tells the story of a part Native American L.A. girl who is sent to foster care after being sexually abused, falls in with the Bloods street gang, receives a gun for her 14th birthday and is finally rescued by a big-hearted black foster mother called Big Mom.

In reality, Margaret B. Jones is white, and her name is Margaret Seltzer. Her deception was revealed by her sister, Cyndi Hoffman, who called the book’s publisher, Riverhead, when a profile of the author ran in the New York Times.


On Tuesday, Riverhead, a division of Penguin Books, recalled the memoir, canceled the author’s appearances and offered an apology.

“Riverhead relies on authors to tell us the truth,” said Marilyn Ducksworth, executive director of publicity. “Indeed, an author promises us the truth in their publishing agreement.”

Seltzer, she said, provided “a great deal of evidence to support her story: photographs, letters; parts of Peggy’s life story in another published book; Peggy’s story had been supported by one of her former professors; Peggy even introduced the agent to people who misrepresented themselves as her foster siblings.”

Stuart Appelbaum, spokesman for Random House, which two years ago published James Frey’s partly fabricated addiction memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” was sympathetic. “It could happen to any of us, no matter how sophisticated or experienced we are,” he said. “Unless you’re prepared to do an incredible reference check, things will slip through.”

Others in the publishing industry said that these kinds of deceptions should be ferreted out sooner.

James Atlas, publisher of Atlas Books, said it was time for a fundamental change in how nonfiction books are vetted for accuracy.

“It’s a tremendous expense to have fact checkers. But I still think some investment has to be made in fact checking,” Atlas said.

Sarah McGrath, the book’s editor, and agent Faye Bender did not respond to requests for comment.

Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, said Bender should take a larger share of the blame. “The agent is the person who represents the author in the sale of this. . . . They do a lot of editing of the manuscript and the proposal; they do a lot of working with the writer.”

South-Central L.A., where the events in the book take place, is worlds away from the New York-based publishing industry, and McGrath, the book’s editor, never met Seltzer in person.

“It seems to me that if this young woman sat in front of me and worked every day with me for three years, I’d have an awful lot of questions,” said Nelson. “How does this apparently normal middle-class person live through such a horrible thing and seem to have no scars from it? I’d like to think if I were the editor, I would have asked harder questions, and I would have kept asking them.”


Times staff writer Lynell George contributed to this report.