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Will There Be a Pulitzer Prize for Co-Writing? : Publishing: Million-dollar deals for celebrity books pervert the art of literature.

Merrill Joan Gerber's first nonfiction book, "Old Mother, Little Cat: A Writer's Reflections on Her Kitten, Her Aged Mother and Life" was published this month by Longstreet Press

Never mind that Marcia Clark and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. have made book deals in the $4-million range. I’ve made a few book deals myself. As a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford in the 1960s, I had a thrilling offer from a Boston publishing house for my first collection of stories. The terms were these: They’d give me an advance in the modest three figures (let’s lay it on the table--it was $150) and if they didn’t like the finished book, they would require that half be returned to them.

I had just written my first two stories in Stegner’s workshop and sold them both, one to the New Yorker and one to Redbook. Here was the publishing world already at my feet. I had pen in hand, ready to sign on the dotted line, but Stegner laid a wise hand on my shoulder and said, “They want half back? Tell them to forget it. You hold out for what you’re worth.”

Over the years that I’ve published 19 books and won a number of literary prizes, my worth has climbed into the modest four figures, although lately, with such enormous pressures on publishing houses, I’m beginning to wonder, if, to get a publisher for my new novel, I may have to advance the editor a few bucks myself.

Publishing houses used to be somewhat apologetic about their need to sell commercial books. Their rationale was that something had to pay for the fine literary works they really wanted to publish. From the days of Virginia Woolf’s private printing press on, the ostensible raison d’etre for publishers was to offer the world the best work of the most serious and dedicated writers. Editors of great talent like Maxwell Perkins, who helped Thomas Wolfe to shape his thousand-page manuscripts, held respected positions in the great publishing houses. Eventually, some editors were given imprints of their own on books they had lovingly edited.

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Somewhere along the way, as publishers merged with cereal manufacturers and editors did less line- by- line editing of manuscripts and more examining of profit- and- loss columns, the art of book publishing took a desperate nose dive.

It’s simply no longer true that the “big” books support the “little” books. There will soon be no little books. Every book now has to stand on its own and promise (even if it doesn’t actually deliver) a substantial return of profits.

The O.J. Simpson case already has eaten up $14 million worth of publishing advances. Thirty-six O.J. books have been published, 14 are under contract and six more are being circulated. The two largest cash advances were offered to non-writers. “Co-authors” have yet to be chosen.

The question is, if book contracts are being offered to non-writers, then can you call the thing they’re offering to the public a book--that once-cherished creation resulting from the labors of a person’s inner vision, the distillation of the writer’s deepest thoughts and reflections, printed on pages and bound in covers with the wisdom of the world in between?

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I’m afraid we need a new terminology for these packaged trumped-up creations now under contract, these boxes that look like books but are really decoys for presenting gossip and the “real dirt.” (What was all that stuff we saw on TV for 16 months?)

And what will happen to the real writers who are still trying to ply their honored trade and tell the truth about life? Saul Bellow once said that fiction is news from existence. Franz Kafka said that a book is the ax for the frozen sea within us. What mission is assigned to the current spate of commercial products soon to be found in your neighborhood bookstore?

That $14 million in O.J.-related advances may not leave even a penny to support the serious artist trying to make sense of this mysterious gift of life that we all share in. What a pity.


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