Normally, O.J. Simpson charges around $100 per autograph at personal appearances. Earlier this year, HarperCollins Publishers, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, paid him thousands more times that amount to add his signature to If I Did It.
The now-infamous project must have seemed like a perfect opportunity for Big Media synergy. Step one: Hire some ethically atrophied ghostwriter to speculate how O.J. might have chopped off his ex-wife's head had he, wink, wink, actually committed that crime (along with the murder of Ron Goldman).
Step two: Air two-hour infomercials on News Corporation subsidiary Fox Broadcasting to promote the project.
Step three: Sit back as Bill O'Reilly, Geraldo Rivera, and the various lesser car alarms who staff Fox News (another News Corporation subsidiary) furiously denounce O.J., his book, and the Fox TV specials in a Barnumesque effort to whip the rubes into a frenzy of curiosity.
Step four: Make tons of money!
Step One must have gone pretty smoothly, because If I Did It does in fact exist. And after that?
Say Simpson was serving a life sentence for the murders of his ex-wife and Goldman. Say he had admitted his guilt in emphatic, unambiguous terms. Say any revenues that If I Did It generated were earmarked for his victims' families. Under those conditions, maybe, just maybe, the public might have accepted a book with Simpson's byline on it.
In reality, of course, Simpson was a free man, serving a life sentence of golf and autograph shows. Instead of acknowledging his guilt, he brazenly swivel-hipped from pious avowals of innocence to shameless taunts of literal hands-on involvement. ("No one knows this story the way I know it.") And unless the Brown and Goldman families were secretly working as caddies and bartenders, they'd never see a penny of the $3.5 million HarperCollins had shelled out for the book.
In short, it was a tough sell. And yet, apparently too potentially lucrative to ignore. If handled deftly, sensitively, with a certain discretion ...
"You will read, for the first time ever, a bone-chilling account of the night of the murders, in which Simpson pictures himself at the center of the action," a HarperCollins press release gushed -- with the sort of tastelessness only a professional publicist can muster. In an astonishingly bold move, If I Did It was being marketed as a spine-tingling screamfest, and if the book sold well enough, who knows what other bone-chilling murders Simpson might picture himself at the center of? Maybe he could even give Freddy Krueger a run for his money.
Not surprisingly, a backlash ensued, and Rupert Murdoch suddenly euthanized the whole production. The Fox specials would not air. The book would be pulped and reincarnated as pages in more prestigious HarperCollins titles, say, perhaps, Sex, Sex, and More Sex and Confessions of a Recovering Slut. Bill O'Reilly, whose best-selling etiquette guides are also published by HarperCollins, would not have to boycott himself.
Mission accomplished, right?
Well, not exactly. If I Did It may not reach as many people as it would have had News Corporation stayed the course, but it's not going to disappear either. The Fox specials were taped. Books were printed, and at least some were distributed to bookstores. If I Did It is out there, and these days, if it's out there, it will eventually make its way to YouTube, the Enquirer, or any of a million other potential outlets.
Had If I Did It been published as planned, great stacks of the book may very well have been bruising remainder tables by early January and still not moving at $4.98 a pop. Now, it's a forbidden mystery, more intriguing than ever -- how graphic does O.J. get? How cruelly, psychopathically bold is he in his re-enactment of these crimes? No doubt, we'll know soon enough. In the meantime, O.J. is laughing all the way to whatever discreet financial institution HarperCollins courteously sent his check.
Greg Beato is a freelance journalist who has written for SPIN, The Washington Post, and many other publications, including his own Web site, Soundbitten.com.