Blurbed To Death
New York magazine|January 4-17, 2021
How one of publishing’s most hyped books became its biggest horror story and still ended up a best seller.
By Lila Shapiro

ON A MILD MONDAY THIS past February, a tense meeting unfolded in a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. Four Latinx writers and activists sat on one side of a long conference table. Facing them was a collection of white editors and executives from Macmillan, the publishing house that had recently put out American Dirt, the most controversial book of the year, or maybe the century. A representative of Oprah Winfrey’s listened in on the phone, and a platter of sandwiches sat on the table. “I wouldn’t eat the sandwiches,” recalled Myriam Gurba, one of the activists. “Those are the enemies’ sandwiches.”

In the months leading up to American Dirt’s publication, Macmillan had positioned the page-turner—about a mother and son escaping cartel violence in Mexico—as a definitive chronicle of the migrant experience. Prominent readers had praised it in terms worthy of a Nobel Prize. The novelist Don Winslow called it “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.” Oprah, who picked it for her book club, wrote, “This story changed the way I see what it means to be a migrant.” Gurba, who is Mexican American, saw it differently. In an essay for Tropics of Meta, an academic blog, she described it as shallow and full of harmful stereotypes and accused the author, Jeanine Cummins, a white woman, of writing “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf.” Many agreed. The early praise gave way to a flood of criticism: Thousands of articles and tweets took issue with the author’s identity, the book itself, and, crucially, a massive marketing push that was viewed as tasteless and misleading. There was a plan to protest Cummins’s cross-country book tour. The week after the novel’s release, the tour was canceled. “Based on specific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety,” wrote Bob Miller, the president of Flatiron, the Macmillan imprint that had published the book. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor.”

Gurba belonged to a network of Latinx writers, DignidadLiteraria, that had formed in the wake of American Dirt’s release to address what its members saw as systemic racism in the publishing industry. The group had requested the meeting at Flatiron because it hoped the company might listen to some of its proposals. In their detailed presentation, the activists urged Macmillan to hire more Latinx editors and to start an apprenticeship program to attract new talent. They pressed the company to open an imprint for Latinx writers and to provide those writers with the same level of support and publicity Cummins had received. Miller had agreed to meet with them because he wanted to understand their perspective and hoped to quiet the negative attention the book was getting. “He seemed to think, We will listen,” one employee said, “and then they will not be as heated in their rhetoric against the author. And we’ll all just work it out. But I don’t think that was ever really on the table.”

On the publisher’s side, Miller and Don Weisberg, then the president of Macmillan, did most of the talking. The book’s editor, Amy Einhorn, was mostly silent. The executives expressed interest in the activists’ suggestions, but they also wanted to discuss the tone of the online discourse. Miller comes from a generation that prizes “civility,” one employee noted. “He could be accused of tone policing,” added another. Gurba, who had received a barrage of menacing emails since publishing her essay, was disturbed that Miller seemed to be “equating the criticism Jeanine was receiving with the death threats I was receiving,” she said. As Miller and Gurba began to argue over this, one Macmillan staff member blurted out that Cummins had never received any actual death threats. “Everybody just went dead silent,” Gurba recalled.

Over the past few years, writers of color have pushed conversations around race and representation to the forefront of the young-adult-fiction world, prompting publishers to pull controversial books from the pipeline. But the proprietors of commercial literary fiction seemed curiously immune to scandal. Although editors and writers of color had been talking about racism in the industry for years, this corner of the book world had largely relegated its own discussion of the issue to diversity panels at conventions— until a year ago, that is, when a novel about the humanitarian crisis unfolding across our southern border precipitated a publicity crisis in the publishing houses of Manhattan. As it happened, the book would also turn out to be one of the best-selling novels of the year. I spoke to employees at various levels throughout Macmillan, all of whom asked to keep their names and titles confidential out of fear of losing their jobs, about the rise and fall of American Dirt. In retrospect, they felt it was inevitable that a storm of criticism would overtake one of their titles sooner or later. Still, there were unique circumstances behind the publication of this book, one employee pointed out, that “allowed for certain things to get out of hand.”

AMERICAN DIRT FIRST LANDED on the desks of editors in the spring of 2018. One editor who had advocated for her imprint to acquire the manuscript recalled reading the opening scene while getting a pedicure during her lunch break and thinking, “Holy shit, I’m not going to be able to put this down.” At the center of the story is Lydia, a middle-class bookstore owner from Acapulco; life is good until her husband, an investigative journalist, writes a profile of a cartel boss who happens to be a charismatic regular at her shop. When the cartel murders her entire extended family, Lydia and her son attempt to flee to safety in the U.S. In the first sentence, bullets fly through an open window; by page 18, Lydia and her son are on the move, heading for “la Bestia,” a gang-controlled high-speed freight train that only the most desperate attempt to board.

“There’s this lore in publishing that immigration books don’t work,” said the editor, who is white. “I remember telling my boss, ‘I feel like this is finally a book about immigration that people who have no interest in immigration will read.’ ” She didn’t consider the identity of its author— perhaps in part, she said, because there was some murkiness around it. In a 2015 New York Times op-ed, Cummins wrote that she had a Puerto Rican grandmother but identified as white. When her agent began sending around the manuscript, he exaggerated the author’s connection to her subject. “Jeanine is half Puerto-Rican and speaks fluent Spanish, which allowed her to do extensive research in Mexico, lending AMERICAN DIRT its hard-won and impressive authenticity,” he wrote in his pitch letter. In any case, the editor wasn’t concerned about whether the book was authentic. “That wasn’t a question anyone who was publishing commercial fiction was asking at the time—not if a book was this gripping,” she said. “It was more like, ‘Wow, this book is incredible. It’s going to be expensive. How much is it worth?’ ”

A lot of editors had the same thought. Nine publishing houses entered an auction that lasted three days and resulted in a seven-figure advance, the kind of deal only a handful of writers a year can pull in. Einhorn, a white editor who was then the publisher of Flatiron, won the auction. She had built a reputation as a “hitmaker,” as one observer in the industry put it: “She has an eye for what’s going to sell.” Under Einhorn’s leadership, Flatiron had become known for accessible fiction aimed at the broadest possible audience. Her hits include Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, another divisive best seller written by a white woman from the perspective of characters of color. (Through a publicist, Einhorn declined to be interviewed for this story.) In a 2014 interview with Poets & Writers, Einhorn said she didn’t consider Stockett’s identity when evaluating The Help. “If the author bio influences you one way or another, that’s a problem,” she said. “It should be the work itself that speaks to you.”

At Flatiron, Einhorn’s acquisition of American Dirt was greeted with excitement and became an immediate subject of discussion at sales meetings, drawing the kind of attention most books don’t receive until closer to their publication date, if ever. A team of four people, all of whom were white, worked with Einhorn on the book, but “she was the person who made the call on every major decision in that publication process, with very little discussion or oversight from anyone else,” one Macmillan employee said. As both editor and publisher, Einhorn occupied a uniquely powerful position. She was able to amass considerable resources to throw behind the work of fiction: a six-figure marketing budget; 10,000 early copies sent out to booksellers, many with handwritten notes; a lavish party at BookExpo more than six months before the novel’s publication. “I had never seen anything like it,” another Macmillan employee told me, “in terms of the sheer amount of attention and resources that were going into the book.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NEW YORK MAGAZINEView All

The Fixer

DJ Khaled is not a rapper. But he does always seem to know a guy.

6 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

Science of Us: Katie Heaney

The Clock-Out Cure For those who can afford it, quitting has become the ultimate form of self-care.

6 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

THE Destroy-It-to-Save-It Plan FOR East River Park

The city’s first real battle over climate adaptation has arrived.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

You'd Be an Iconic Guest

A ruthless Instagram interviewer brings her knowing wink to cable.

5 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

The Great Indoors

A critic reacclimates to the now-unfamiliar terrain of the dining room.

4 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

Political Animals: Olivia Nuzzi

The Crisis Crisis How the White House polices language in Washington—including the president’s.

6 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

What Was the Office?

It Was Stressful, Filthy, High Stakes—and Where the Action Was

10+ mins read
New York magazine
April 26 - May 9, 2021

ANDREW YANG'S INSIDER CAMPAIGN

How did a former CEO of 100 employees become the front-runner to govern a city of 8.5 million? Not simply by being a national celebrity and an excellent campaigner.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

The Group Portrait: Little Pot

The activists and entrepreneurs intent on making New York’s new cannabis industry more equitable, less corporate.

2 mins read
New York magazine
April 26 - May 9, 2021

Tech vs. Journalism

Silicon Valley feels picked on by “woke” journalists “who can't code." Reporters feel picked on by petty zillionaires with anger-management problems. Inside the nasty clout battle for how the world’s most influential industry gets covered.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021