Death of Literature? Not Just Yet. ; Concern in the Book Industry over Ads in Novels and Tracking Sales Is Misplaced

Article excerpt

Before Sept. 11, the threat that most concerned the publishing industry in New York City was the encroachment of commercial practices into its otherwise cloistered business.

From a scanning system that will track what books are selling and where -possibly putting too much spotlight on bestsellers -to the inclusion of advertising in novels, there wasn't a month that went by this summer when critics weren't concerned about the death of literature.

Even Bill Clinton's book deal, which was reportedly record- breaking at more than $10 million, had some concerned last month that publishers are focusing only on celebrities at the expense of lesser-known authors.

Handwringing is common among those who deal in books, where there's always some new thing -be it the proliferation of TV channels or the arrival of e-books -threatening the public's taste for the printed word. Some critics seem particularly troubled by the idea of books becoming as crassly commercial as less high-brow entertainments such as movies -where stars get big salaries, product placement is common, and sales figures are a weekly event.

But others are less concerned. They say that while the new practices in the publishing industry deserve scrutiny, the idea that any one is going to have a major negative impact on what readers find in bookstores is unlikely.

"None of the things we've discussed seem to suggest that literature is being threatened," says Jerome Kramer, editor of Book magazine. "Is it hard for someone who's written a good book to get published? It is hard. But was it equally difficult 50 years ago? I've never heard anything to suggest that it was not."

Indeed, long before Mr. Clinton was handed a check bigger than the one the pope got for his book, publishers were paying less attention to the authors in the middle of their lists. And commercialization has been seeping into the book industry for decades, ever since the job of publishing has fallen into fewer and more corporate hands.

Of more concern than the use of tracking devices or the occasional sponsored novel, say some experts, are issues like censorship and the homogenization of what's available (thanks to the growth of chain bookstores). Still, many people were brought up short by the recent news that an author allowed her services to be bought by a sponsor.

British author Fay Weldon's next novel, "The Bulgari Connection," started out as 750-copy party favor commissioned by international jeweler Bulgari for a gala it held for its clients. It ended up as an offering from both her British and American publishers.

In America, advertising is found everywhere from gas pumps to elevators, but discussions of Ms. Weldon's arrangement with Bulgari -whose name is mentioned throughout the novel- filled op-ed pages and prompted lively debate on talk-news shows (What's next, toilet paper? quipped one critic).

Weldon, an established author with little apparent fear of the industry, doesn't see anything wrong with sponsorship, which could offer a way for struggling writers to earn a decent living. (Weldon was not paid "vastly enormous sums" for her Bulgari opus, she says.) Concerns about thwarting the publication of good literature and stifling creativity because of the need to please the sponsor are misplaced, she explains in an interview.

"Far worse than advertising is this subtle pressure to produce novels that reinforce current perceptions of good and bad, as if we had reached the pinnacle of right thinking, which is not necessarily a truthful thing," she says. …

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