The shiny allure of celebrity publishing

Forget torches under the sheets as we read way past our bedtime. In this celebrity-driven age, we can read by the sheer light of star power alone. While society has always been obsessed with the great names of the day, it has never been more ubiquitous than it is now, thanks to the ability of the internet to ensure we’re never far from news about our favourite star.

And they of course are never far from us, even if it is only a virtual presence hovering close by.

The rising tide of celebrity books
The rise of celebrity-written books has only reinforced this trend to omnipresent fame with every celebrity worth their salt (and many, that one could argue, who aren’t) jumping on the literary bandwagon to adoring oohs and aahs from their fans who are rushing out to buy these books, almost before they hit the bookshop shelves.

But why are celebrity tomes suddenly all the rage? And what does it mean for the future of publishing as a whole?

Weighty questions indeed for what many dismiss as inconsequential books by people trying to extend their 15 minutes of fame, but enough people are buying books by famous people to merit the asking of these questions.

Certainly the influx of celebrity-attributed books has merited some serious discussion in the blogosphere from the likes of Rachel Symes of US National Public Radio (NPR) who noted the rise of the phenomenon in a May 2011 post on that organisation’s blog:

“This past week on the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction, nine out of 16 titles were “celebrity books” — quickie memoirs, humorous essays, and life lessons dished out by the rich and famous for readers to chew on.”

She went on to say that, “the wave has already crested on the fame-worship shores and by now we are all lucky if we can stay afloat long enough not to drown in it.”

Her description of the overwhelming numbers of celebrity-penned, or at least badged books (many books are written by ghost writers with input, both large and small, from the celebrities) was backed by Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times, “Inside the List”:

“In the meantime, not even elite special forces seem to be able to fight off the celebrity invasion currently menacing America’s bookstores. Forget Osama: what are we going to do about Tina Fey, Steven Tyler, Rob Lowe, Betty White…?”

Is there a cause for concern?
So clearly a number of online commentators are sounding the alarm bells but what really is the nature of the crisis?

Should it be a matter of concern if Snooki (aka Nicole Polizzi) from Jersey Shore releases a book, Confessions of a Guidette which becomes a New York Times bestseller or that Fabio authored an erotic murder thriller, Wild? Granted they may not be the best books ever written and released, but they keep the celebrities’ fans happy and engaged and provide a healthy revenue stream for a traditional publishing industry imperilled by the digital revolution.

Surely that’s a good thing for all concerned isn’t it?

Well, yes and no.

Worry no more?
In the short term, it’s a deafening “yes” for the publishing industry. Beset by seismic changes wrought by the advancing tide of digital change, the brand name recognition, and hence guaranteed sales of a celebrity-penned book, are welcome indeed.

(image via sinussister.com)

Books by Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Fey and Steve Martin, all of whom have penned critically-acclaimed, best selling works, bolster the bottom line at a time when people are flocking to far-cheaper ebook versions of books courtesy largely of a cashed-up Amazon. Embattled by Amazon’s aggressive push to make substantial inroads into the business of publishing, as well as selling books, publishers have looked to quick and easy low-cost ways to maintain the fast-disappearing revenue streams of old.

It has also been suggested in passing that anything that can draw people into a bookstore who might then buy other more weighty titles is a good thing:

“We’re not denying the fact that at least these ‘celebrity-written’ books are increasing the literary consumption of the average person; anything that gets people reading, barring some very specific exceptions, is never a bad thing.” (Sara Farb, writer, “The problem with celebrity books”, sheknows.ca)

However even she admitted that this small positive was outweighed by a number of significant negatives.

Or run around in a dizzying panic?
Critics of the traditional publishing industry’s current celebrity-driven success, who allege that it is temporary at best, are emphatic that the answer to the question is a resounding “no”. They say that this strategy could well deny many up-and-coming writers, the producers of what Lynn Price at the Behler Blog refers to as “good books”, the chance to join the ranks of John Grisham, Jodi Picoult and James Patterson.

Writing in July 2011 Price further commented in the light of the publication of teen pop superstar Justin Bieber’s memoirs:

“I can’t help but feel saddened that many “worthy” books won’t be published because they won’t make the megabucks that folks like Baby [Justin] Bieber will.”

It is a theme echoed by many other writers, all of whom fear a loss of fresh talent in the realms of traditional publishing generally as new authors find it difficult to not only get a publishing deal but be noticed when they do.

Writing in bookforum in May 2011, Ruth Franklin was drawn to remark:

“A novel by a new writer has a smaller chance of becoming a best seller today than at any other time in history. [Michael] Korda likens it to ‘finding an empty seat on a commuter train that’s packed with regulars.'”

Commenting on Ruth’s assertion, Rachel Symes said:

“And when the regulars are also riding first-class by nature of being celebrities, it can lead debut authors to feel like second-class citizens, the bastard children of the publishing world.”

Is there a viable alternative?
Now you might argue that this surely isn’t as big an issue as it used to be since e-publishing has given many would-be authors the chance to self-publish and through hard work and diligence carve themselves all the brand recognition they want among the reading public. While that is true to some extent, the fact remains that the digital platforms are still in their infancy despite their growing success, and that many authors still value the visibility that a real world publishing deal brings them.

But with these publishing deals increasingly scarce on the ground as publishers chase the easy money of “celebrity-written” books, the question is being asked about what these authors are supposed to do to make their mark?

Sara Farb, has cheekily suggested that in response, aspiring writers would be “better off starting as stars’ ghostwriters; at least that would ensure a healthy enough paycheque, even if it does mean being relegated to the 8-point font acknowledgement section at the back of the book.”

(image via savvyverseandwit.com)

On a more serious note, the likely outcome is that many writers will leave the publishing houses alone, thus accelerating the decline of the major publishers, and join forces, as many are already doing, with the traditional publishing houses’ great enemy, Amazon, and self-publish. Or, as happened in the recording industry, flock to the emerging small independent houses such as Candlemark and Gleam, and Red Lemonade, who are doing bold and daring things in the digital space, to seal a publishing deal.

Either way the big traditional publishing houses, which Sarah Lacy has referred to as “dysnfunctional prehistoric companies”, risk trading away any future cultural and commercial relevancy for short term gains that could disappear as quickly as the fame that currently underpins much of it.

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