It’s much easier to make news sound exciting if you leave the facts out, as witness a recent story by Karen Springen in Newsweek about a children’s picture book about plastic surgery:
Mommy 2.0:The article’s a major thumbsucker. It’s three pages long, with quotes from a concerned child psychiatrist, opposed opinions from some random person who thinks the book is a good idea (to give the article that balanced effect), and four full-sized colored panels reproduced from the book. I’ve seen a lot of trade publishing sell pieces that did a worse job of promoting a book.
A new picture book about plastic surgery aims to explain why mom is getting a flatter tummy and a ‘prettier’ nose.
When she was pregnant with her son Junior, who turns nine this month, Gabriela Acosta ballooned from 115 pounds to 196. Acosta lost the weight but wound up with stretched, saggy skin. Even her son noticed it. He told her that her stomach looked “pruney,” the result, he thought, of staying in the shower too long. So the 29-year-old stay-at-home mom scheduled a consultation with Dr. Michael Salzhauer, a board-certified plastic surgeon in Bal Harbour, Fla.
Acosta told Salzhauer that she wasn’t sure how to talk to her son about the procedures she was considering. That’s when he showed her the manuscript for his children’s picture book, My Beautiful Mommy (Big Tent Books), out this Mother’s Day. It features a perky mother explaining to her child why she’s having cosmetic surgery (a nose job and tummy tuck). Naturally, it has a happy ending: mommy winds up “even more” beautiful than before, and her daughter is thrilled.
Naturally, it’s stirring up all kinds of fuss and feathers and disgusted indignation—vide Icerocket, Google Blog Search, Blogpulse, and Technorati—in the traditional style of these things: aieeee, eheu, what kind of values are we going to be teaching our children, O the well-intentioned squawk and kerfluffle of it all.
Not that I blame the people who are getting worked up over this. No. I blame Newsweek for yanking our chains. This story is equal parts hokum and hot air. You’d think that somewhere in those three pages of titillating handwringing, Springen would have gotten round to mentioning that My Beautiful Mommy is a self-published vanity-press book available only from its “publisher”—or, presumably, from Dr. Michael Salzhauer.
Big Tent Books (not to be confused with Big Tent Entertainment) is a vanity press and marketing and fulfillment operation. It pretends it’s separate from another company called Dragonpencil—in theory, Big Tent is a marketing and distribution firm, and Dragonpencil is a publisher—but they’re really a single organization run by Jerry and Samantha Setzer. The two companies have the same address and phone number. Big Tent’s award-winning books get all their awards from Dragonpencil. Dragonpencil’s deluxe publishing package includes marketing and distribution by Big Tent. And if you poke around their sites long enough, you can find the page where they admit it.
Big Tent/Dragonpencil has the usual problem of vanity presses: zero to lousy sales and distribution. They’re a lot better at making books than they are at promoting them. Only a few of their titles are even listed at Amazon, and those are listed badly—half the normal publisher-furnished information is missing. Sales are minimal.
My Beautiful Mommy is not one of the books Big Tent lists on Amazon. It has no ISBN that I can detect—and this close to its publication date, I should be able to detect one. Clearly, this book is not destined to make its way to the shelves of your local bookstore.
It’s equally clear that the existence of My Beautiful Mommy says nothing about the state of the nation. It’s not going to corrupt the values of the youth of America, because they’re never going to see a copy. If it weren’t for Karen Springen’s article, the book would have no more significance, and get no more notice, than a xeroxed handout from your local GP.
So: Newsweek manufactured this alarming story out of medium-thin air. It’s one more thing to think about when the conventional media make snotty remarks about the journalistic standards of weblogs.
Update: Jill of Writes Like She Talks has followed up with her own research. She tracked down the author’s blog and his book’s ISBN (978-1-60131-032-3), and has left a message on his phone asking how Newsweek got his book. I’ll be watching for further developments.