Not to be confused with…

Every time I see someone refer to him- or herself as a “published author”, “published poet,” or whatever, I have my doubts.

I’m not accusing the person of lying, but there’s a lot of places you can be published, starting with publications that, at best, pay you in copies — presumably that you’ll pass around to impress your friends with, while increasing the magazine or paper’s circulation. I intend no slight on those people; like most professional writers, I started off in pretty much the same way, even though I didn’t include the phrase “published author” on my c.v. And there’s something to be said for an editor thinking that what you wrote is worth printing, if only because he needs something to separate the ads from one another, placate an advertiser with a story about his product, or whatever.

I used to sniff at those “published author” types, thinking that J.D. Salinger or even Jackie Collins don’t go around billing themselves “published author,” or T.S. Eliot or Samuel Taylor Coleridge footnoting their letters “published poet.” But then, an envelope* arrived in this morning’s mail. In the upper-left corner, where the return address customarily appears, was — in quite large type — this:

“Oh,” I’m apparently supposed to think. “THAT ‘John Grisham’.”

Now, I may have to rethink my opinion that magazines like “Writers Digest” weren’t read by established writers, but by people who aspired to the calling. Maybe John Grisham, the author, gets plotting tips from such magazines.

Fairly recently, I wrote several sets of liner notes over a period of a few years for a company that — although they paid me fairly — wouldn’t give me copies of the albums in question. On the other hand, many of them were albums that I wouldn’t want in my collection for their musical value anyway, so at least I’m saving some space on my shelves.

I once edited a magazine — a “controlled circulation”, or throwaway — that dealt in music and was skewed to a young crowd, interested largely in dance music. One day, the publisher informed me that we were going to start running restaurant reviews, submitted by a freelancer he was bringing in. I thought it was odd, as the restaurants in question wouldn’t appeal to our demographic at all, but the publisher owned the paper; and his word was that of God.

Though the reviews came in well-enough written (and very enthusiastic), I helped a little bit by going out and taking pictures of the restaurant to give the pieces a little visual appeal.

Only later did I realize that the “reviewer” was the restaurants’ publicist, writing under a pseudonym. Not only were our readers (those who paid any attention to the restaurant reviews, at least) cheated; so were the restaurants, who were paying this person for exposure that was pretty well worthless. Alongside their advertisements, of course.

This kind of thing, or something similar, happens more often you might think. And not just in print: when you see a person on TV demonstrating new products, for instance, you should wonder if the “expert” is being paid by the TV producers, or the product’s manufacturers.

I used to want to teach a college-extension, Learning Annex or similar outlet course in “How to read a newspaper.” It would explain why some stories run and others don’t, where to look for conflict of interest; that sort of thing. I think it would be interesting, and that a lot of people who took the course would be (1) surprised at what they learned, and (2) upon completing the class, able to get more out of their daily reading.

But now — who cares about newspapers?

* a solicitation, as it turned out, to send money to the Southern Poverty Law Center. A worthy organization, perhaps, but they should show more faith in our knowing who John Grisham is.

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