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The price of bylines

Publishers Marketplace has had two recent book deals by “authors” who publish other people’s work. Blogger Sasha Cagen is putting out The To-Do List Project, and Bill Shapiro, the Managing Editor of Life Magazine, is releasing a book of Other People’s Love Letters. If you don’t have a paid account at Publishers Marketplace, you can view clips of each at the ever-classy Gawker.

Frank Warren’s second PostSecret book goes to press this Sunday; Found II by Davy Rothbart showed up in stores last May. These books are certainly selling well if they’re releasing sequels.

Sarah Vowell of NPR’s This American Life pokes fun at this new genre on the back cover of the first Found book: “Writers resent FOUND. How would you feel if you spent months and years slaving over stories when these talented rubberneckers can’t seem to walk their dogs without tripping over one teensy epic after another? No fair!”

While I am tempted to call them editors, each of these “rubberneckers” is now an author.

It’s rather inspirational to me that thousands of ordinary people can appear in books without intending to – indeed, anyone who can write becomes an author of sorts. The PostSecret book appears in the biography section of Barnes and Noble. But is it right to give credit to the individual who organized the submissions?

I do not intend to suggest that publishing is as easy as walking a dog; I’ve read Frank Warren had to employ his wife and an assistant reader so he could maintain his small business in addition to the hundreds of secrets that arrive each week in his mailbox.

The question I mean to raise is: What defines an author? If a person is capable of gathering literal scraps as opposed to mental ones, then organizing them all together to fit one theme – be it love letters, to-do lists, secrets, or angry windshield notes – does that make her a writer?