Another Three Cups of Tea Story--With a Different Ending

Last Updated Apr 25, 2011 12:47 PM EDT

The publishing world has been shaken by 60 Minutes' expose of possible fabrications in Greg Mortenson's best-selling memoir, Three Cups of Tea, which was co-authored by David Relin (I also recommend Jon Krakauer's own account, Three Cups of Deceit). There are many lessons here but especially for authors, who aren't professional writers, and share a goal of educating readers and building their brand through a book.

I have my own perspective as I know another American who, like Mortenson, had a life-changing experience while traveling through the Himalayas when he encountered poverty and the desperate needs of children for literacy and education. He also left previous career and began a nonprofit organization that would-as of this writing-ultimately bring well over 10,000 libraries to remote areas in Asia and Africa. He also wrote a book about the journey. published, coincidentally, the same year as Three Cups of Tea.
And I was his editor.

John Wood's Leaving Microsoft to Change the World was published by HarperBusiness in 2006--the same year as Three Cups of Tea. Our sales executives alerted me to Mortenson's book at the time, because they saw it as competition, and to some extent they were right. Though he covered similar material, Wood approached his subject from a business perspective. Wood focused on his journey of becoming a social entrepreneur, its rewards and possibilities, and the innovative management practices that made his non-profit, Room to Read, a model organization.

Wood took responsibility for every word in his manuscript. He didn't take any literary license to jazz up his story, and relied upon extensive journals he compiled during his years.

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World sold well, and Publishers Weekly called it "a rare business book that not only provides savvy insights for better business practices but transcends the category altogether, to rank as an infectiously inspiring read." Amazon ranked it as a top ten business narrative of the year.

Some powerful reminders emerge in this tale of two authors and their manuscripts.

  • Don't rush. If your mission or business is too demanding to do the job right, then wait. Don't be premature. John had already worked 70-hour weeks for years, traveled around the world, raising money and raising schools, making Room To Read a well-run nonprofit. He had a strategic plan for the book he wrote himself that included time to write a proposal, meet with publishers, write, edit and review the manuscript. In a recent interview with Outside magazine, Mortenson admitted that co-author David Relin read the manuscript to him over the phone while Mortenson was deep in Afghanistan working 16 hour days. "I should have taken a few months off and focused on the book," Mortenson said.
  • Take 100 percent responsibility. Own every word and go the extra mile to ensure your manuscript is accurate. Authors must submit a manuscript that is not libelous. Whether you're the sole author or have a coauthor , remember it is your name and reputation and your words. John told me that "I refused to make shit up just to have drama in the narrative," when several early readers of the manuscript complained that there was not more drama. John's view was because his team ran Room to Read in a highly professional manner, their projects in Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and other regions didn't generate much drama.
  • Apply journalistic standards to the manipulation of events and chronology in a nonfiction book. If a few incidents are compressed, names changed, or minor shifts in chronology made for legal reasons, or to make things easier for the reader, say so clearly in the narrative opening the book. Mortenson's book opens with a statement that a "very few" names and dates are changed. If that's all you say, then don't embroider major events that are central to your book--a particularly troubling accusation made about Three Cups of Tea.
  • Make sure you've got back up. If you're writing about real people and events, keep a detailed journal, documentation, and even better use a tape recorder. John had been keeping journals for 20 years, and they were vital to the writing of the book. Journal writing (or the use of reliable tape recorders) is particularly valuable in documenting experiences during travel. It is much harder to go back and verify facts and conversations with people in remote or inaccessible areas.
Mortenson's coauthored memoir is written as a portrait of a heroic figure, and is not in any way a how-to book. Since that was the case, and Relin himself tells the reader how much he admires Mortenson and wants him to succeed, the authors had further incentive to play it straight, and not embroider or exaggerate.

Do publishers to some degree exert a silent pressure on authors with their enthusiasm for dramatic memoir nonfiction and explosive revelations? Yes. Could book publishers offer more training and teaching with young editors about issues such as accuracy, infringement, notes, and standards? Yes. As Mortenson himself has said in interviews, he regrets not exerting more control over his manuscript. Mortenson comes across as a great guy. He has earned his humanitarian awards, and succeeded in building schools and bridges of humanity in Afghanistan. I'll bet for all his books going forward, he'll have a new approach.

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Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter
  • Herb Schaffner

    Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.