August 1, 2007
A Diet Book Serves Up a Side Order of Attitude
By MOTOKO RICH
Ever since Running Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, first published the raucous, profanity-laced diet book "Skinny Bitch" in December 2005, it has sold steadily. From an initial print run of fewer than 10,000 copies, there are now more than 245,000 in print.
But it wasn't until Victoria Beckham, also known as the pop star Posh Spice and wife of the soccer player David Beckham, was photographed carrying a copy of it in a Los Angeles boutique in May that the book started climbing the best-seller charts in Britain. When E! News picked up the story in June, the title took off in the United States. On Sunday it was No. 12 on the New York Times best-seller list of paperback advice, how-to and miscellaneous books. This Sunday it will be No. 3.
Defying conventional publishing wisdom, which says that a book must break into the best-seller lists in its first weeks on sale or risk sinking into oblivion, the book, which is a year and a half old, has also gathered steam despite not being sold in mass-market retailers like Wal-Mart, which can often account for a significant proportion of sales.
With a sassy cover featuring a drawing of a slender young woman wearing a tight-fitting body suit and hoop earrings, and holding a pair of oversize sunglasses, the book, by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, promises a "no-nonsense, tough-love guide for savvy girls." That brazen attitude has lured buyers looking for an alternative to the standard dieting tome.
"It's definitely the most entertaining diet book I've ever read," said Linda Marotta, the lead buyer at Shakespeare & Company, which has four stores in New York City. Ms. Marotta said "Skinny Bitch" had sold "extremely well" in the stores.
The cheeky tone and the authors' runway pedigrees -- Ms. Barnouin is a former model, and Ms. Freedman is a former modeling agent -- belie the book's message, which turns out to be hard-core vegan, with a good helping of animal rights rhetoric that might be more familiar to the Birkenstock brigade than your average diet-seeking book buyer.
"It definitely has that sharp, chick-lit look and feel," said Dana Brigham, co-owner of Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass., which has sold more than 200 copies. "You look at the photo of the authors on the back, and they are both drop-dead gorgeous. If you look at the photos of authors on the crunchy granola books -- maybe not so much."
Some readers have been put out by what they see as a disconnect between message and medium. Laura McGlinchey, a 41-year-old computer network manager, said she bought the book on Amazon.com because she was attracted by the packaging and "irreverent tone."
So she was surprised to encounter chapters on meat and poultry farming practices. "It seemed to be pushing more of a PETA agenda," she said, referring to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal-rights advocacy group. Ms. McGlinchey said she was so fed up that she didn�t even finish the book.
Ms. Barnouin, who did most of the research while Ms. Freedman wrote, acknowledges that the book delivers its message with a spoonful of spice rather than being a straightforward treatise. (Among their dieting precepts: "Soda is liquid Satan.")
"Yes, the material in the book is not, for so many reasons, the easiest sell," said Ms. Barnouin, who gave up modeling eight years ago to study holistic nutrition. "It's not your typical diet book, and there's a lot of animal-rights information. We just thought, let's be light, funny, have a fun, catchy name and put a cute picture on the cover of the book. We just knew marketing was going to be the key."
Ms. Freedman, who quit her modeling agency job five years ago to become an animal-rights advocate and kindergarten enrichment program teacher in Wyckoff, N.J., said she was surprised that any reader would be offended by the book's more serious content.
"They're mad that they spent $14 on a book that was not what they thought, but they're not mad that chickens are having beaks chopped off their faces?" asked Ms. Freedman, who now lives in Hollywood. "How is that possible? I can't even wrap my mind around that."
The publisher makes no apology for the book's packaging. " 'Skinny Bitch' has a straightforward message that some people may find tough to take," said David Steinberger, the chief executive of Perseus Books Group.
"The book is crystal-clear on what constitutes junk -- alcohol, caffeine, chemical additives like aspartame, dairy, meat and refined sugar," he added. "Large numbers of readers have embraced the book, but like any diet book, it's not going to be for everyone."
The authors, who became friends a decade ago when Ms. Barnouin modeled for the agency where Ms. Freedman worked, decided to write the book based on their mutual passion for animal rights and healthy eating. The title was one of their first ideas. The tone and the frequent use of four-letter words, Ms. Freedman said, is authentically her own.
"I'm from New Jersey, and as much as I hate to admit it, it's pretty much how I talk," she said.
Talia Cohen, an agent at the Laura Dail Agency, said that several publishers looked at the 20-page proposal, but many were unwilling to take a risk on the unknown authors, or felt the voice was too brash or the diet too hard-core.
Jennifer Kasius, a senior editor at Running Press, had the opposite reaction. "It's just so funny, and it really drew you in," Ms. Kasius said. (A sample: "Beer is for frat boys, not skinny bitches.")
Ms. Freedman said the pair sold the book for a "teeny tiny" low five-figure advance. Ms. Barnouin did much of the research on the Internet and used books she had studied in her nutrition course. Given that neither of them had medical credentials, Ms. Barnouin said that she was careful about where she culled information.
"I tried to make sure that it wasn't just some girl in her living room writing what she thinks," she said.
After they finished a manuscript, they asked Amy Joy Lanou, senior nutrition scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an advocacy and research group that promotes a diet free of animal products, to vet their work. Ms. Lanou said she made a few suggestions about citations and nuance in their claims.
Whether Ms. Beckham actually read "Skinny Bitch" is unclear; her agent and her publicist did not return calls or e-mail messages seeking comment. In a 2005 interview with the Spanish magazine Chic, she admitted to having never read a book in her life.
For their part, Ms. Freedman and Ms. Barnouin have since signed a two-book, six-figure deal with Running Press. The first of those, a cookbook called "Skinny Bitch in the Kitch," is due out in December. The second book, as yet untitled, will be an eating guide for pregnant women. Will that also promote a vegan diet?
"We will have to keep our readers in anticipation," Ms. Freedman said.