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Paterno biography: Can it recover from bad timing?

Writer Joe Posnanski's biography on the late Penn State football coach comes after the infamous scandal involving Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky.

By Husna Haq / July 23, 2012

Publisher Simon & Schuster has drastically scaled back the book tour and other events for 'Paterno' by Joe Posnanski.

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It’s being called “perhaps one of the most unfortunately timed books of 2012.”

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And with a rejiggered game plan chock full of author event cancellations, title tweaks, and frantic changes in the publication date, it’s also a lesson in damage control for the publishing industry.

“Paterno,” a forthcoming biography of the late Penn State football coach by author Joe Posnanski, has made Simon & Schuster “the latest example of a publisher that is trying to recover when the story behind a planned book changes before publication,” reports The New York Times in a piece on the forthcoming bio’s bad timing.

And how the story has changed. “Announced in March 2011 as ‘a biography of America’s winningest college football coach, who changed the country one football player at a time,’ the book will enter the marketplace at a moment when the name of Joe Paterno, the late Penn State coach, has gone from revered to radioactive,” writes the Times.

In the wake of the Penn State scandal, Paterno, who died of lung cancer in January at the age of 85 after 46 years as head coach at Penn State, has fallen hard. Following accusations of child sexual abuse by Paterno’s longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, reports emerged suggesting Paterno was aware of the abuse accusations and failed to report it. One in particular, a July 12 report by Louis J. Freeh, a former director of the FBI, that found Paterno not only failed to report accusations of abuse to police, but also renegotiated his contract in 2011 as the scandal was unfolding, “winning himself and his family more money and perks,” was particularly damaging to the late coach. 

Since then, Paterno’s alma mater, Brown University, axed his name from a prestigious annual award and coaching position. And Penn State President Rodney Erickson ordered the removal of a statue of the late coach from outside the university’s football stadium, commenting in a statement, “I believe that, were it to remain, the statue would be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been victims of child abuse.”

The turn in public perception of the once-beloved JoePa has “made people angrier at Joe Paterno,” Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp told The New York Times. “And that has made it a more difficult environment to publish a biography about Joe Paterno.”

Among the publishers' damage control measures: the release date was changed from Father’s Day 2013 to August 2012 and the title changed from a majestic “The Grand Experiment: The Life and Meaning of Joe Paterno,” to a more modest “Paterno.”

What’s more, Posnanski’s book tour has been scaled back and scores of author interviews, book signings, and events have been cancelled. “We’re sensitive about putting our author in forums where he might be viewed as a stand-in for his subject,” Simon & Schuster spokeswoman Anne Tate told the Times.

Already, Sports Illustrated declined to run an excerpt in its pages and some bookstores have said they will not carry the book.

It’s a vexing challenge for any publisher certain it had a touchdown on its hands only to find itself scrambling to stay in the game. For his part, S&S publisher Karp is shifting the focus away from the once-celebrated coach to his biographer.

As he told the Times, “People can pass all the judgment they want about Joe Paterno, but Joe Posnanski deserves a chance to be read.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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