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    Dis-Passions

    By PHILIP HERTER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


    Book publishing is a weird business. In a move that corporate pundits hail as synergy but I'd call a dizzying twist of advertising, the NBC-TV network has woven the publication of a novel into the plot of its daytime soap, Passions.

    Appearing on the New York Times bestseller list with 120,000 copies in print, the novel, called Hidden Passions, professes to be the diaries of one Tabitha Lenox, a 300-year old witch regularly featured on the program.

    As a novelist preparing for my literary debut, I have to sympathize with the real author -- a woman named Alice Alfonsi, a writer of several other romance novels. She received a flat fee for her writing, and her name appears only on the copyright page in small print. Royalties will be split between NBC and the show's producer, James Reilly. For ghost writers, synergy has its price.

    On the bright side, most authors could only dream of NBC's grab-them-by-the-hair marketing campaign. Producers invited HarperCollins chief exec Jane Friedman to appear on the show as herself (give them credit for knowing fantasy's limits) receiving the phone call from Tabitha's evil chum, Timmy, who pitches the manuscript. Of course, the publisher offers a fat contract on the spot. A later episode has the would-be author fretting over the shelf space devoted to her masterpiece at a Waldenbooks.

    In this whole story's one nod toward realism, the book is sold to HarperCollins because Timmy needs drinking money. If only all literary agents were so desperately motivated.

    As consumers, we should be used to cross-over marketing. Celebrity housekeepers like Martha Stewart and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have blurred the line between content and hype, reality and fantasy. Pop star Jewel is a poet; Oprah is a critic.

    As readers, we may have to work harder to sort out the fiction from the fictitious. But who knows? It may be a good thing to have fictional characters take over literature on a permanent basis. This would free up poets and writers to take acting classes and train themselves for fame on reality shows like Survivor.

    The last page of Hidden Passions is a spell cast by sorceress author Tabitha Lenox meant to cause readers to forget they read it -- a stroke of marketing genius, true, but I know a few real writers who wish they'd thought of that.

    - Philip Herter, a New York writer who has just completed a novel, writes regularly for these pages.

    * * *

    Hidden Passions:

    Secrets from the Diaries of Tabitha Lenox

    Harper Entertainment, $25

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