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Hart Williams

The Obligatory O.J. Column

Marcia Clark, the famed female prosecutor in the OJ Case, received a reported $4.2 million for her yet-to-be-written memoirs, what-have-you. This follows the report that Christopher Darden, her deputy at the trial, received $2 million for same. Johnny Cochran, the winning defense attorney, has received, or agreed to receive "slightly more" than Marcia Clark. "We won again," either Mr. Cochran, or a press flack, or someone connected in some way with Mr. Cochran is reported as saying.

All that need concern us here is the math.

$10 million, or thereabouts, has been paid out of the end of 1995's editorial budget by the various "major" publishers. It can safely be assumed that this represents $10 million that will not go towards the rent for any number of actual writers.

It can also be safely assumed that each of these "celebrities" will be assigned an amanuensis, an ectoplasmic scrivener, a "ghost writer." Why? Because writing is, publishers realize (as a sort of left-handed compliment), a skill and a craft, far beyond any inherent "art" that might attach to the process of writing. The usual practice, these days, is to hand the celebrated a tape-recorder, send the recordings to the transcriber, assign a writer to clean up the transcriptions and to make sense of the process.

And, as the presses run, our latest mass-media sensation takes the television stage to shill the product. This seems to generate sales for the publishers, but I think that there is something morally and ethically corrupt in the process.

But what the hell? Discussions of ethics and publishing tend to dissemble in the confusion of the two utterly alien worlds. It is best that we leave morals to Mr. Bennett.

But what of the $10 million? Well, there is a general and universal impression in the world at large that selling "a book!" is something like winning the lottery. You MUST be--if you are the author--suddenly rich beyond your wildest dreams!

Well, er, no.

Writing pay is the quickest method I know of to experience the life style of the Third World. It's a quick and immediate commission in a sort of Peace Corps, only you are not showing the natives now to live on Ramen noodles and lukewarm water--you are teaching yourself the rudiments of living in extreme poverty. This is why the field of publishing is dominated (numerically) by part-time writers.

And why is there no living wage in writing?

Why, because our publishers are scrimping on advances so that they can afford to sign Marcia Clark to sort of "write" a book! What is important is that your FACE is known. THAT is what sells books. (Or, "Can we sell the movie rights?")

One is reminded of the specter of an aging actress "writing" a "tell all" memoir, going on Donahue or Oprah to reveal her terrible misery at wetting the bed, or being sex-addicted, or having recovered from the drugs she was taking because of the trauma inflicted in childhood when she was kidnapped by gypsies or whomever. And, after the hardcover round of interviews (On Regis & Kathy Lee: Dominique LeSeur reveals her diet tips and discusses her new book, "Molested and Abandoned!"), and with the paperback tie-in to the movie-of-the-week, we spot the REAL Dominique LeSeur playing a cameo in the movie of her own life, with the latest soap-opera ingenue playing the "young" Dominique in "Seduced and Abandoned," based on the book, "Molested and Abandoned," by Dominique LeSeur, 'as told to' whomever.

And the writers continue to starve. Even in the screenplay process that turned "Molested and Abandoned" into a cheap TV movie, the producer will often eat up as much of the shooting budget in a few hours' indecision as the entire screenplay cost him. Producers are notorious for trying to haggle an extra $500 off the price of the script--rarely the other way 'round.

Now, the entire machinery (which depends on writing, depends on bookstores and upon readers) cranks into creaky action trying to capitalize on the fact that Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden and Johnny Cochran were on TV for months. The editorial budget has been sucked dry by the "literary auction," wherein several publishers sat around a table and bid for the rights to the three "as told to" books. The writers who were marginal, who were teetering on the edge of insolvency on the one side, and a mild reprieve with enough cash to tide them over, suddenly find the former fate dictated by the Voice: "Well, we're on a buying moratorium until mid-May. You are free to shop this to another publisher, or you can resubmit it in May. Sorry. (click)"

But most writers learned long ago to "keep the day job."

Those that didn't are pushing up daisies somewhere. It's not the writers who suffer, ultimately. It's us. The readers are the prime group that is impoverished by the failure of the vertically integrated "media" corporations' utter failure to offer writers a living wage.

Why this contempt exists, I am not certain. The man who speaks the words, the Dan Rather, the Harrison Ford, the unctuous game show host: he makes a factorial more than the man who wrote the words. Or the woman: writing is, at least, in this sense democratic. Writers starve equally, regardless of gender.

The writers are the lubricant on which the entire process glides: the faceless press releases, the anonymous writers of jacket copy, the advertising jingle copyists, the newsmen and women who produce the enormous "disposable" prose output that keeps the public going to the concerts, the movies, keeps 'em renting videos and watching TV.

Every rung of the media ladder is supported by a stratum of writers. Look at "The Late Show," or "Saturday Night Live": see how many writers are listed in the credits?

And yet, at each stratum, the writer's wages are in no wise reflective of his/her contribution to the production of pretty words in selling the aftershave, the movie, the political candidate, the whatever. Writing ranks dead last in income among professions. The average garbage man makes significantly more in collecting garbage than all but the top 2% of writers.

Do you know how many novel advances, now many book advances that $10 million will buy? To see that money taken from the mouths of actual writers--remember that it will take about nine months for any of those books to come out--well, it doesn't seem fair or sporting, does it?

For twenty years, publishers have been complaining about the rise in the price of paper. At nearly every juncture, the writers' share of the proceeds of the publishing enterprise has been reduced to beef up the paper outlay in the budget. I remember, in the early 'Eighties, many magazines decided to make their writers bear the weight of the magazine: from "payment on acceptance," publishers (who had not raised writers' wages in at least ten years of inflation and often more) moved to "payment on publication," as pernicious a practice as has ever been my misfortune to witness.

Let me explain: "payment on acceptance" meant that the magazine paid you when it 'bought' the piece. Now, that was probably weeks or months after you mailed it to them, and, once accepted, it often took anywhere from 30 to 90 days for the accounting department to cut a check -- a fact that, for some reasons -- landlords were not sympathetic to.

But when it went to "payment on publication," it usually meant that payment would not take place until the LAST day of the month of the magazine's publication (often six to eight months after acceptance). Well, you might have noticed that the "November" issue of any magazine usually comes out in the first week of OCTOBER, and, after the money has sat for two months--YOUR money, I might add--in the publisher's interest-bearing account, they have LITERALLY squeezed the last possible cent from the writer's work that can be squeezed.

I, along with many others who had, formerly, eked out a precariously living writing for magazines, was forced to seek other, greener pastures. Magazines of the era focused more on photographs, as a result.

Ambrose Bierce wrote at the turn of the century: "The immemorial relation whereby the publisher was said to drink wine out of the author's skull has been rudely disturbed by the latter demanding some of the wine for himself and refusing to supply the skull--an irritating infraction of a good understanding sanctioned by centuries of faithful observance."

Happily, the past century has done much to relieve this imbalance. $10 million for nothing of any literary worth is a good measure of how writers are valued today.

I salute America's latest literary millionaires. How well must they write!

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