How to Publish a Book by an Odious Person

When O.J. Simpson wrote a book, the outcry against its publication was so intense that the publisher canceled its release and recalled 400,000 copies.

But there's been nary a peep about the recent publication of My Life as a Spy, a self-justifying memoir by John A. Walker Jr., who is serving a life sentence for espionage and who was, in some experts' estimation, among the most damaging spies in U.S. history.

Is (alleged) murder that much worse than high treason? Or is O.J. Simpson so famous he's in a class by himself?

Because, really, Walker is no slouch when it comes to despicable behavior. He was a Navy communications clerk who fed the Soviet Union top-secret U.S. codes for nearly two decades at the height of the Cold War. He also recruited his son, his brother and a friend into his spy ring, as Pete Earley described in his 1988 book, Family of Spies, probably the fullest account of the case.

In 2006, Simpson's memoir -- originally titled If I Did It -- caused a storm. People were furious that he was getting a chance to publicize his version of the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. Many also assumed that he would profit from the book's sales, even though celebrity publisher Judith Regan said the money was going to a third party to benefit Simpson's children.

Facing enormous negative publicity, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, parent company of HarperCollins / Regan Books, pulled the plug both on the book and on a TV interview with O.J. that was to air on its Fox network; Murdoch himself apologized for the pain caused to the victims' families by this "ill-considered project." A year later, the book was published (by another company) -- but only after a bankruptcy court awarded the proceeds to the family of murder victim Ronald Goldman. The title also was changed; the book jacket has a tiny "if" and much bigger letters saying, I Did It: Confessions of the Killer.

Walker's book, in contrast, has generated virtually no publicity. Its publishers appear to have learned some important lessons from the Simpson case on how to put out a book by an odious figure. The initial printing was 7,500 copies, not 400,000. There is no TV "tie-in." And Jill Maxick, a spokeswoman for the publisher, Prometheus Books, said that Walker will not see a penny of profit from the book, because the publishing contract is with one of his daughters, Cynthia Ober, who had no alleged involvement in the spy ring.

"I grew up completely oblivious to my father's double life," Ober says in a one-page explanation that the publisher provided in response to an inquiry from The Washington Post. She adds that their family was highly "dysfunctional" but that she "was devastated" when she learned, shortly after her father's arrest in 1985, that her brother also was caught up in the spying.

"During my father's time in prison, he decided he would try to explain his actions to his children," Ober explains. "What started out as a 'letter to his children,' turned out to be his life story as a Naval officer turned Soviet spy. It took many painstaking years for his life story to be put into words. His failing eyesight due to complications from diabetes made his project seem unending. I am now ready to share his story."

Yet the book does not read like a letter to Walker's children. True, it opens with a brief, apologetic Foreward addressed to "Dear Margaret, Cynthia, Laura and Michael." But after that, Walker tells his story with gusto, mocking the Navy's lax security and clearly relishing his exploits. My Life As a Spy also drips gobs of self-pity and self-justification. Walker claims that he spied not for money or thrills but to "discredit the fraudulent cold war" and prevent either side from launching a nuclear attack. Most of all, though, he seems eager to discredit his ex-wife, who turned him in.

"Had my marriage been successful," he tells his children in the Foreword, "I would now be enjoying retirement and spoiling my grandchildren, not writing about my secret life from prison. But my marriage was a failure, wrecked very early by your mother's blatant infidelity."

According to the publisher, on top of his diabetes, Walker has been diagnosed with "stage 4 cancer of the throat" and is going through aggressive chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

-- Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  January 23, 2009; 7:02 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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