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
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
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. …