How Greg Mortenson outsmarted his publishers

"Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson explains how the wording he wanted for his book finally prevailed.

Central Asia Institute/Courtesy of Greg Mortenson
Greg Mortenson, seen here in 2003, has dedicated himself to building schools throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If you've read Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea," then you understand that Mortenson knows a thing or two about how to handle himself in a tribal jirga. So it should come as no particular surprise to watch this video clip in which he explains how he finally prevailed in a dispute with his publishers over the words to be used on the jacket of his runaway bestseller.

At the moment of the negotiations, however, "Three Cups of Tea" wasn't yet a bestseller, and, Mortenson tells a crowd at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, he was just "this little guy from Montana." His publishers were quick to explain to him that only 1 nonfiction book in 8 makes a profit. In other words, Mortenson had no particular clout.

But he did have a strong feeling about the yet-to-be-published true story about his quest to build schools throughout Afghanistan. He wanted its subtitle to read "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time."

What his publishers preferred, however, was, "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ... One School at a Time."

To Mortenson, there was a significant difference between the two. "If we fight terrorism," he says, "that's based in hate. But if we can promote peace, that's based in hope."

But Mortenson's publishers were convinced that the book could only be sold to the public with the word "terrorism" on the cover. So they won Round 1 and the hardcover version of "Three Cups of Tea" ran with their subtitle.

Mortenson, however, had learned a thing or two about negotiating from his friends the Afghan tribal leaders. So he agreed to the wording – but with a caveat. If the hardcover version didn't sell well, he'd have the right to use his own subtitle on the paperback version.

The hardcover version sold only about 20,000 copies. But the paperback – with Mortenson's subtitle – well, that's history. After three years on the New York Times bestseller list, 39 international editions, and a place on the Pentagon's mandatory reading list for counterintelligence officers, the success of that more hopeful presentation of "Three Cups of Tea" speaks for itself.

We can only guess that when it came to Mortenson's 2009 sequel, "Stones Into Schools," the subtitle "Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan" was immediately dubbed a winner.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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