TeleRead Update #9 | Return to TeleRead Home Page | Anti-CVS Web Site

The CVS Syndrome: Will Book-Writers
Go the Way of Neighborhood Pharmacists?

I can usually count on bad service from CVS pharmacies here in Alexandria, Virginia. The lines are Soviet-long, and the choice of merchandise, including, yes, the reading matter, is just as mediocre as the chainstore decor. Some 8,000 people have signed petitions against a planned CVS on the site of the MacArthur Theater in Northwest Washington, D.C. The metro area has enough of the CVS blight. Michael Dolan, an ex-editor of a pharmacy magazine, correctly worries about the existing MacArthur Drugs in the Palisades neighborhood. "If you want something out of the ordinary at CVS's pharmacy," he was recently quoted, "their eyes cross. It's the horrible grinding attritive nature of American business: the squeezing out of the little business, the spread of the corporate model, the mass merchandising of shoddy service."

Could professional book-writers go the way of independent pharmacists? In a Washington Post op-ed justifying TeleRead, I told how CD-ROM work had turned a magazine writer into a multimedia hack. He was no longer so busy writing articles. Instead he was excreting little snippets for the silver disks of his corporate clients. My article suggested TeleRead as a way to help keep real books alive in a tech-crazed era, and the CD-ROM example was hardly the only one gnawing at me. I could just as well have alluded to a corporate production out of Microsoft, Bill Gates' Road Ahead, which required not just Gates but two collaborators. It was not so much a book as a committee-drafted business plan.

I loved Gates' vision for actual writers. The $36-billion+ Man said that if we wanted, we could forfeit royalties on electronic library books. He meant it, apparently. When Gates pledged $200 million to American libraries, he did not commit himself to spending a penny on real books by real writers (see TeleRead Update #8).

No, Bill Gates is not on a crusade to bankrupt real writers and their publishers, but he might as well be. And he is hardly the only Suit at fault. Some of the worst threats come from the publishing industry itself. We hear talk that small- and mid-size firms will rescue the nonVIP writers when the megaconglomerates lose interest, but don't believe it. One independent house on the West Coast publishes hundreds of books each year but no longer will look at a novel unless a movie or video game is there to reinforce the marketing.

At the same time, ghosting is replacing actual writing. I myself have collaborated in the past with a nonwriter, not because I wanted to, but because that's what the market demanded. And I'll do it again for the money. But I feel grouchy about this, especially after reading the May 25th issue of the New York Times Magazine.

The author of the article here is Jack Hitt, and the headline and subhead tell the story all too well: "The Writer Is Dead. But His Ghost Is Thriving. Ghostwriters aren't just the new stars of publishing. They are a metaphor for a profession that is fading fast."

"On any given week," writes Hitt, "up to half of any nonfiction best-seller list is written by someone other than the name on the book. Add those authors to feel enough latent uneasiness to bury the writer's name in the acknowledgments and the percentage, according to one agent, reaches as high as 80. And ghostwriters are increasingly working the other side of the street--on the fiction list."

Jack Hitt tells how an old girlfriend of O.J. Simpson collected millions for a book. "What does she have to tell us?" Hitt quoted literary agent Lucianne Goldberg. "She will describe what it is to sleep with O.J. She'd better. She has nothing else to say."

Hitt concludes: "The most telling moment in publishing recently was the fallout surrounding the book Primary Colors. Joe Klein understood that his book stood a better chance of success with a celebrity name on the jacket. So he ghostwrote his own novel and created the most absolutely fabulous author of 1996, Anonymous. In the end, what was particularly puzzling was the level of public fury directed at Klein when he revealed himself to be the man behind the name. People say it was because of the immorality of hoodwinking his friends and readers. But I don't think it had anything to do with ethics. Rather it was deep disappointment that the author of Primary Colors was not a famous person at all. He was just a writer."

Still, I'd like to think that a few readers will appreciate real books from real writers. Perhaps it is time to demand that our books carry the following notice: "This real book is by the real writer whose name is on the dust jacket. It is unghosted. We make this statement under regulation #235541455 of the Federal Trade Commission, subject to a $2-million fine for a violation." Bureaucrats require that yogurt be truthfully labeled. So why not books?

Worry not, reader. I jest. But not about my concern with the CVS Syndrome. The irony is that publishers themselves could be among the biggest victims of the ascendancy of marketers over writers and editors. A large conglomerate lost a bundle when an actress failed to come up with a publishable manuscript--just with a court settlement allowing her to keep the seven-figure advance. Sales of hardback books are down, and while they'll probably rebound, the conglomerates are not raking in nearly as much from book sales as they would like. The goal of an 18 percent profit is about as real as the characters in the typical ghostwritten novel. One reason just could be that "product" quality is sinking. The publishers are not nurturing young writers the way they used to. Not that the days of Max Perkins were nirvana. But at least young novelists didn't require agents before the large houses would even look at their work. And editors did not listen to the radio to recruit new talent, the way the modern ones fixate on Oprah; they actually read their slush piles in search of nonslush. The CVS era was eons away.

So how would TeleRead counter the CVS Syndrome? First, please understand that it is not a full cure. To avoid a hazard just as lethal to books as CVSS--a government-bossed publishing industry--TeleRead would pay writers and publishers of commercial books by the number of accesses. People could gamble money up front to qualify for higher royalties later on. TeleRead would not turn every new book online into The Catcher in the Rye or Gravity's Rainbow; pulp would still be alive and well.

Even so, TeleRead would raise the quality and profitability of books on the Net, including, commercial fiction. Without TeleRead, traditional books will gradually lose their appeal amid distractions ranging from two-way video to the traditional mailing lists. The financial incentives will not be there. People will write for free just as on Usenet, or for crumbs, given all the competition, and some good works will find readers, but as a rule, Gresham's Law will prevail. Quality takes time, and money can help. Consider The Power Broker, Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses; the man gambled half a dozen years of his life. What's more, some novelists may devoted decades to individual novels. And these people are to thrive off real books in a Gatesian world?

By contrast, TeleRead would make it possible for the public to read book after book by professional writers who were not pressured to forfeit royalties on library books. What's more, readers could share copies of electronic books without a Copyright Gestapo threatening them. Tracking devices, configured to respect privacy and using the same principles as anonymous digital cash, would report accesses. So writers and publishers could earn proper compensation from a national library fund. It would even be possible for your personal home page to point people to a legally downloadable copy of your favorite book. In this world of sharing and friend-to-friend recommendations, prose would count more. Obnoxious marketing campaigns and distribution muscle would matter less.

Which brings us back to drugstores. Years ago I could walk into one of the stores displaced by CVS and, besides the soda fountain, see a paperback rack that offered not only pulp but also the works of Mailer and Bellow. Too, the store carried serious nonfiction by unknowns. Forget it now. At least for the most part you won't find nonfiction by non-Names on subjects other than diets or astrology or the like. Bookstores are not a replacement for drugstore racks. How many children live within a quick bicycle ride of them? And what about the affordability of the books in any store? I once gambled less than a $1 for a good paperback novel; now the price is $5-6, of which, however, the typical writer gets just a pittance. That's hardly the way to help nonVIP writers who write real books. Isn't it just possible that we need a new distribution system online to counteract the CVSing of writers and books?

--David H. Rothman, July 15, 1997

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