Book publishers are treading on tricky ground as they vie for the rights to publish Amanda Knox's memoirs.
In person, Amanda Knox came across as soft-spoken, smart, almost scholarly, naming literary novels she found moving.
She said it was a longtime dream of hers to be a writer. And her book, she told the publishers, editors and publicists who listened raptly, would be the true and unvarnished story of what happened in Perugia, Italy.
“Everybody fell in love with her,” said one publishing executive who attended a meeting, echoing the sentiments of a range of people who have met Knox recently to discuss publishing her memoir.
Her personal charm aside, however, Knox’s story is complex and disturbing — and still hotly debated by an American public that loves to take sides when it comes to did-she-or-didn’t-she crime tales.
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This makes the next step trickier for publishers who are vying this week for the rights to her memoir, whose blockbuster allure comes against a backdrop of unsettling details: The former University of Washington student was arrested in 2007 in the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in what prosecutors described as a sex escapade gone wrong, spent four years in an Italian prison and was eventually exonerated in October after an appeals court overturned the conviction.
The surge of media attention that will surely accompany the book’s release — normally a good thing for publishers — comes with risks. To some members of the public, Knox was an innocent abroad who was imprisoned for a crime she did not commit. To others, she is a cunning femme fatale who got away with murder.
And that brings some difficult questions: Do book-buying Americans see Knox as a sympathetic figure? And if the book commands a seven-figure advance, as is widely expected, will it be worth it?
“I think it’s a huge gamble for somebody,” said one publisher who did not intend to bid on the book. “It’s not like she has been exonerated in a clear and definitive way.”
Nevertheless, the book has set off a frenzy among publishers who have seen its dramatic possibilities as viewed through Knox’s eyes: an account of what happens when a young, middle-class student from Seattle goes abroad to Italy, is accused of killing her roommate and is trapped in what many Americans see as an archaic Italian court system.
Much of Knox’s book, publishers said, will be based on her recollections from her time in Italy, recorded in diaries that she faithfully kept while in prison.
Many publishers consider the book an easy blockbuster best-seller. Some have compared it to “A Stolen Life,” the 2011 memoir by Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped and held captive for 18 years. At the time of publication, Dugard was interviewed on ABC News by Diane Sawyer, and about 15 million viewers tuned in.
That appearance set off a huge wave of interest in the book that stunned many publishing insiders. Tracey Guest, a spokeswoman for Simon & Schuster, said that since last July, “A Stolen Life” has sold more than 1.2 million copies in print and e-book editions combined.
The publisher that finally acquires Knox’s book may also pick up bragging rights, publicity and the opportunity to attract other authors, even if her book doesn’t sell spectacularly.
The Knox family has taken its time in telling its story.
Knox returned to her hometown immediately after being freed on appeal in the central Italian city of Perugia, the place where she and her ex-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, had been convicted of murder and sentenced to 26 and 25 years in prison respectively.
(Sollecito, who is living in Italy, has acquired a literary agent in Seattle, Sharlene Martin; a ghostwriter, Andrew Gumbel; and is planning to shop a book of his own as soon as this month.)
Instead of rushing to get a book out immediately, Knox waited months before formally meeting with publishers. To represent her, she chose Robert B. Barnett, the Washington lawyer who has handled book deals for the likes of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Elton John.
Barnett has a reputation for meticulousness — another indication that Knox was in no hurry to make a deal. Barnett declined to comment on the book.
There are only a handful of big publishers — among them, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Penguin and HarperCollins — that have the resources to compete in a bidding war for a book that will most likely be sold for millions of dollars.
One thing is certain: A huge amount of publicity is expected to accompany its publication.
How well the book will sell abroad is uncertain. Public opinion in Italy has been heavily against Knox, but interest in the case there is so intense that the book could be a quick best-seller.
Other books on the Knox case have sold only modestly. “The Fatal Gift of Beauty” by Nina Burleigh, published in August by Broadway Books, has 20,000 copies in print, the publisher said. A paperback edition is scheduled for publication in July and will include new information on the appeal.
Booksellers, who have a finely tuned sense of what will take off with their customers, said the success of the book will rest on how it is written and whether Knox comes across honestly to readers.
“I think if it has an authenticity and reflective quality, it could be huge,” said Roxanne J. Coady, the owner of the R.J. Julia bookstore in Madison, Conn. “If it is a variation of a P.R. campaign to clean up her reputation, I think it will flop badly.”