What becomes a legend most? Being imitated, arguably. But, when that imitation comes in the form of the publication of a book, the situation can become more complicated than one might think. The legend is cinematic provocateur Michael Moore. The imitators are a group of liberals who have written a collection of essays urging the defeat of the current occupant of the White House. The conflict arose because of the titles of the two books. As you know, among Moore's ouevre is the bestselling political perambulation "Stupid White Men. . .and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!" The new book by the consortium, also political in nature, is called "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office." The New York Times covered the controversy.
Next week, a tiny Brooklyn-based publisher will bring out "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office." The book, a low-budget paperback written by a group of political activists, is not to be confused with "Stupid White Men," a HarperCollins best seller by the filmmaker and author Michael Moore, which remains in hardcover.
But HarperCollins has been concerned about just that sort of confusion. In November, HarperCollins wrote to the Brooklyn publisher, Soft Skull Press, demanding that the title be changed and stating that the similarities would cause "irreparable damage" to Mr. Moore and his book.
. . .In the HarperCollins' letter to Soft Skull Press, the publisher said, "Michael Moore has become closely identified with the phrase 'Stupid White Men' in the minds of the general public."
"Accordingly, we demand that you eliminate the phrase 'Stupid White Men' from the title of Mr. [William Upski] Wimsatt's book prior to its publication," said the letter, from Beth Neelman Silfin, vice president and associate general counsel of HarperCollins. "Please confirm to me, in writing that you will take this important and necessary step to avoid confusion between the two books."
Under normal circumstances, I believe Moore would be joining the publishers in urging a change of the name of the book by upstarts. He does have an interest in protecting his equity in the phrase "stupid white men." But, the circumstances are not normal. It is a case of my (sort of) enemy's enemy is my friend. Moore quit HarperCollins after it drug its feet about publishing "Stupid White Men."
HarperCollins has always had a hard time making up its mind about "Stupid White Men," a jeremiad against the Bush administration that was originally scheduled to be released on Sept. 11, 2001. HarperCollins delayed the release because of the sensitivities created by the terrorist attacks, and, according to Mr. Moore, asked for significant changes in tone and content.
The book was finally released in 2002 after a group of librarians organized a protest and threatened to boycott the publisher, according to Mr. Moore. The book became a big nonfiction success, selling more than a million copies, but Mr. Moore said he was embittered by the experience and moved to Warner Books. Mr. Moore says he has not spoken to anyone at HarperCollins for two years.
"It is kind of strange that a publisher that first tried to squash my book is now trying to defend their economic interest now that it is a best seller," he said. "And they are apparently doing it by trying to squash another book.
I think it only reasonable that HC is trying to protect its continued stake in "Stupid White Men." He may consider HarperCollins an enemy, but, as long as it keeps that book in print, particularly as hardcover, HC is also his friend. Furthermore, I believe Moore may regret his hasty decision to side with his enemy's enemy. The names and the natures of the books are similar enough to engender confusion. That confusion may result in money ending up in others' pockets that was intended for his. Though he may be flush now, there is no guarantee Moore will continue to be the flavor of the month, year or decade. The septugenarian or octogenarian Moore may regret the decision the middle-aged Moore has made. Abbie Hoffman was not serious when he encouraged readers to "Steal This Book" because he had an economic interest in selling that book. Moore, down the road, may realize he had a similar interest to protect.