- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

Let us pause for a moment and extend our sympathy to the New York Times. Awww. The poor old New York Times. Gee whiz.

The newspaper has been having an indecorous identity crisis in the past few years. Just think. To keep up with cheeky competition, the Times had to sully its pages with color photography, trading tasteful “gray lady” status for something polychrome. Then the paper’s dirty laundry was aired during the big Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal of 2003, which was not particularly earthshaking, although the company rented out Radio City Music Hall for a group grievance session for all 1,200 employees.

Its journalism has reached new heights. The Times now has a reporter who writes about nothing but perfume. The paper also produces wedding videos — with music — for select Manhattan couples du jour that later are posted under a new online section called Vows. December will find the paper rolling out T, a blabby, blogged out, mercurial fashion magazine the paper notes will provide “a stylish platform” for advertisers.

Well, hey. The Times has to scratch out a living just like everybody else.

But another phenomenon has occurred in these times of excruciating competition and media clutter. Consider the phrase “New York Times best-selling author.”

Everyone, apparently, is a New York Times best-selling author. All those novels about women on the brink of a nervous breakdown or menopause or both seem to be penned by New York Times best-selling authors. Every last self-help book and historic tome also was written by some New York Times best-selling author, as are theme mysteries, unauthorized tell-alls and guides to potty training.

Charles Dickens is not a New York Times best-selling author. Yet.

And we can’t forget all those important oeuvres about women rescued from failed marriages by bush pilots or insurgents or the nonfiction books that tell the bush pilots and insurgents how to accomplish this feat. Written by New York Times best-selling authors, all of them.

How do we know this? It’s right on the cover, of course, stamped in place like a meat inspection sticker.

“The Lipstick & Girdle Chronicles” by New York Times best-selling author Madge Hinkle-Tuber. Oh, and if Madge herself isn’t a New York Times best-selling author, then each and every one of her reviewers is:

“Mrs. Hinkle-Tuber has written another gem” — New York Times best-selling author Harriet Jane Peedy.

“A joy” — New York Times best-selling author Tanya Fripper.

Bookshelves around the nation are jammed with the works of those who lingered on the New York Times’ coveted roster for, oh, at least a moment or two. Like Andy Warhol’s claim that we’re all destined to be famous for 15 minutes, everyone’s going to be on the New York Times best-seller list somewhere along the line. Why, it’s so easy. A snappy title, some glossy graphics, and voila: One is New York Times-ready.

Are all these people really New York Times best-selling authors? Maybe it’s actually a new psychological syndrome or Zen exercise in which one merely imagines oneself on the list, and that’s good enough.

The truth is, though, that everyone seems to be writing a novel, a cookbook or the next “Goodnight Moon.” There are hundreds of books that tell one how to author such things with blockbuster prowess. There are hundreds of writers organizations, writers retreats, writers forums/conferences/workshops/coaches/therapists. Perhaps most hair-raising, “story creation” computer software is easy to come by, complete with plot, title and name generators; instant outlines; and query-letter templates.

So everybody’s a writer now.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many people are New York Times best-selling authors. So be it. They may or may not get read, however. An Associated Press survey recently revealed that a quarter of us did not read a single book last year. Still, J.K. Rowling made $150 million on her latest “Harry Potter” epic, and annual book sales somehow will top $40 billion this year, according to Publishers Weekly.

Meanwhile, the New York Times may still be searching for ways to pay the rent. Our best advice: Trademark the phrase “New York Times best-selling author” and sell the rights for use on T-shirts and baseball hats. And why not organize New York Times best-selling author classes at Columbia University or a New York Times best-selling author conference and literary festival? Surely there’s room for franchised New York Times best-selling author coffee kiosks or New York Times best-selling authors anti-aging cream.

It’s either that or start producing pet videos.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and girdle chronicles for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at jharper@ washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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