Death of literature? Not just yet.
Concern in the book industry over ads in novels and tracking sales is misplaced.
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. "The threat is that publishers will only publish books that they believe are going to make them money, and they get it wrong."
As a result, creativity is already compromised in the publishing process. "Writers' creativity is restricted all the time," says Weldon. Though it doesn't happen to her, she says some writers are asked to change endings and avoid certain themes. "So many good books don't get published because they don't conform to a marketing niche," she adds.
Others in the industry tell of letters from publishing houses asking authors to move key events from the beginning chapters to later so as not to scare readers with bad news right off the bat.
"I certainly have talked to many authors where the advice is not for the editorial quality of the book, but to figure out the saleability of the narrative," says Patricia Holt, former book critic at the San Francisco Chronicle.
It's a phenomenon that has increasingly caused editors to venture out on their own as they feel their jobs are being undermined by marketing pressures at publishing houses, says Ms. Holt, who now reports on the industry through her web site, www.holtuncensored.com.
She suggests that the reason this summer's new practices have gotten so much attention is that they are so blatant. "Maybe we react so hugely because it's much harder to see and act [on] the stuff that's endemic that's so much worse."
A good argument can be made that the commercialization of books is nothing new, having existed since the days of the Bard. Shakespeare's sonnets were written for hire, and Ian Fleming's James Bond novels mentioned brand names of cars. Contemporary authors have characters drinking Coke and wearing Armani -it's a shorthand for describing what kind of people they are, Weldon says. One recent example is novelist Brett Easton Ellis, who has been known to include so many product placements in his work, it becomes satire.
Weldon's US publisher was surprised by the amount of press that's surrounded "The Bulgari Collection," but publishing it was something they, too, paused to consider. "We questioned it, then we read it and we loved it," says Judy Hottensen, director of marketing and publicity at Grove/Atlantic.
By the time the book is released in the US in November, the industry may well have moved on to its Next Big Concern. By then, readers will be able to judge for themselves whether Weldon's is a "real" novel or an effective piece of marketing for Bulgari.
In time, more will also be known about what effect the recently introduced tracking system, BookScan, will have on the industry. The company is still signing up publishers -who pay a fee, based on their revenues -after securing big-name retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Borders.
Concerns about how sales information will affect the industry have always existed, says Patricia Johnson, associate publisher at Knopf, which is in discussions with BookScan but has yet to sign up. When Crown bookstores started discounting bestsellers 25 years ago, she says, people thought publishers would focus only on those kinds of books. "That's never been the case," she says, "despite fears."