Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Celebrity Effect

One of my pals on Facebook posted a story about how Pope Benedict is writing a children's book. This inspired lots of anti-celebrity writer comments (and some Catholic-bashing ones for good measure). 

This happens on forums every time a celeb children's book is announced.  "Real" kids book writers tend to get het up about it, whether the celeb in question is a sports star, pop singer, or in this case, pontiff.  "How dare they! They  should stick to what they are good at and leave children's book writing to people who really care about children and the art of writing books!"  Then come the insults about that celebs suitability as a role model, alleged scandals, questionable morality, looks and lack of intellect.

I understand some of the ire, particularly when the celebrity in question says something dumb like "there just weren't any good kids books out there, so I had to write one!" ... but I guess I can't get too worked up about it.

a) How do we know that celeb isn't an awesome writer? Don't get me wrong, I have my doubts, but still. I'd be bummed if somebody said I couldn't or shouldn't write a book because I have a totally different day job.  Wouldn't you?

b) Yay for selling books! The buyers for celebrity books are probably not people who buy a ton of kids books anyway, but who knows, maybe this will bring them into a store to buy something else as well. Or maybe the kid who gets that book will love it and want more books. Goodness knows, I loved the Berenstain Bears when I was a kid, and you'd be hard-pressed to find something more didactic that THAT - but my love of those dumb bears turned into a love of books, which got me to keep reading.

c) If it sells well, that publisher will have more dough with which to buy books from debut and non-celeb authors.  A rich publisher is a happy publisher.

And insulting Catholics or priests, or pop-music fans or singers, or sports enthusiasts or players, because they have an interest in these books? Poorly done. Look, many millions of people are Catholic and wonderful, many hundreds of thousands of priests work their whole lives to help children, not hurt them, and many if not most of those people care about what the pope has to say. Many millions of people are Madonna fans and wonderful, and Madonna seems to care deeply about children and their issues. Many millions of people love Michael Phelps, and he is a role model and hero for many many children.

We can assume that these people are probably not evil people. Sure, many celebs are suddenly in the writing business for some cash, just like some start perfumes or clothing lines when you know they aren't exactly chemists or designers. So what?

That means that somebody out there thinks that many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of consumers, will be interested in what that person has to say.  So maybe instead of thinking of these books as "books" the same way that your books are, think of them as merchandise.

If you don't like the pope, or Madonna, or Michael Phelps, or any celebrity, you are quite free not to purchase their merchandise, whether that be books, or perfume, or leggings.

Insulting these public figures and their fans is not actually helping you, or advancing your own career or writing in any way.  Their book being published isn't taking away your chance to be published. They are not taking away "your slot" -- that slot is the "celebrity merchandise" slot, you probably aren't a celebrity, that slot wasn't going to be filled by you anyway.

So take a spoonful of sugar, and make your book as great as it can be, so that you have a shot at one of the slots you DO have a chance to fill.

And if you are a celebrity, or God's Voice on Earth, and you happen to be reading this?

Call me.


  1. I don't give a crap about celebrity books (I mean, really, is my book not being published because their book is? Doubtful), but my friend is ghostwriting a (non-children's) book for a famous celeb and having seen the distribution of work, I wish she could put her name on it. :)

    (Which is not to imply that all celebrity books are ghost written...yadda yadda...don't want to offend anyone...blah blah...)

    (I'm also putting this in parantheses for no good reason.)

  2. Anonymous8:48 AM

    I think some people's bitterness stems not from the fact that celebrities are writing children's books, but because they are practically guaranteed a book deal. Those of us in the slush pile have to deal with daily rejections and have to build thick skin. I know that for many writers, it's kind of a burn to see how easy celebrities can get book deals while we struggle to get published.

    Not to discount anything you said here, or anything, but just bringing up a point. I think you mention a lot of very good points here, as well.

  3. I'm less angered by celebrity books than some others, but what does annoy me is that they get a book deal because of who they are, rather than because of the quality of what they write. When the public are continuously told how hard it is to get a publishing deal, and how much harder it is to make money once you do, I can see why it would frustrate and anger aspiring writers.

    However, if they can write a good book - great! I'm sure they probably get enough help with it that it becomes a decent read. Maybe they'd always secretly wanted to be a writer...I don't know. I do agree that they shouldn't be told they 'can't' write one just because they are a singer or something. It would just be interesting to know if anyone would have been interested in the story they had to tell if it wasn't for who they are. ;-)

  4. Completely in favor of celebrity books, particularly because of point #3. At this point, we really shouldn't be bitching about ways our publishers bring in extra funds. They need the bestsellers in order to publish the non-bestsellers. Celebrity books are like printing money. A rich publisher is one more willing to throw some money towards a new or a midlist writer. It's only good for us.

    Also, one of my favorite books as a kid was The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, which I didn't even know was Julie Andrews until I finished it.

  5. Anon 8:48 and Jane:

    I edited the post a bit to make my point even more clear. I don't think that what they are doing IS "getting a book deal" in the same way regular writers get book deals. I think it is "getting a merchandising contract."

    In the same way, it is quite difficult to learn to be a cobbler, spend your youth apprenticing for master shoemakers, spend your adulthood crafting wonderfully perfect handmade shoes, which go on to become a hit abroad, which leads you to create a shoe empire.

    It is quite easy for Jessica Simpson to slap her name on some spike heels and have them sell at Macys, without ever having learned to sew leather.

    That's the way of the world. And the customer for Manolos is not the same as the customer for Simpsons, anyway, so what difference does it make?

  6. Well, plus, re: celebrity books not needing to be "good" or get a book deal... Isn't it kind of like being an established writer? Once you've proved yourself in a creative field and are a desired commodity, you're permitted to suck. Adult best-selling writers can go "Oh, I'd like to write a YA novel!" and it will be published even if it's clear they haven't read a YA novel since they were teens themselves. I mean, it doesn't work so far as, you know, writers can't say "Oh, I'd like to act now!", but, still...there is more freedom to have other opportunities and possibly even to suck at them. But celebrities still had to pay their dues somewhere in the beginning. (Unless they had a celebrity dad, of course.)

  7. There are a couple of celebrities whose children's books I think are charming - Julie Andrews and John Lithgow being two.

    Madonna - not so much.

    And I sort of agree w/Anon 8:48 - it's not so much that they just decided they wanted to write a children's book (as if it as easy as riding a bicycle -which is part of it), but that they can just ring up a publisher and get a contract.

    We work really hard for a lot of years to MAYBE get a deal that won't be half as good, and someone just hands it to them. It is frustrating.

    But I also agree that the profit from such books allows publishers to take a chance on books that might not do as well, just like all the dough that Dan Brown books bring in (or Stephanie Meyer, or whoever) allow them some room for lesser known authors.

  8. Good points, all (and I love the sentiment, "I learned to read because of those dumb bears!") I'd also add that some writers seem to feel that celebrity books are taking dollars out of their pockets, but I think buyers who go into the stores solely for a celebrity book would either not otherwise be buying or would select "Goodnight, Moon" for their grandchildren instead. Either way, they're in the store, they're putting a book into the kids' hands, and they're padding the publisher's bank account. As long as publishers don't knock everyone else off the list, which I see no evidence of their doing, I think it's just one of those things.

    Now, where are my Simpson heels?

  9. Chalk me up as another person who's not bothered by celebrity books. The point about these books being "merchandise" really rings true to me. I forget who it was that said this next thing (Jen Barnes, maybe?), but I remember a comment someone made one one of the online forums about how celebrity books are really just "book-like objects," and not so much actual books.

    Personally, I like the idea of getting a book deal because of my writing, not because of my success (or accidental fame, or whatever) in some completely unrelated arena. It's gonna feel genuine to me, you know what I mean? Let the celebrities have their merchandising deals, I wanna do it the other way.

  10. I like the points made about it bringing in enough money to 'take a chance' on other books - is this how it works though? I have zero experience with this sort of thing.

    And while I understand the merchandising angle (rather than the book deal), it isn't viewed like that by many.

    I'd hope to some extent, that when celebs pen adult fiction books, they are published because they are good stories more than just for merchandising. Purely because I understand the appeal more for a child seeing a book written by their favourite actor/singer, than for an adult. I've never read any fictional books written by a celeb (that I know of) - so they could be amazing, or they could be rubbish!! I do plan on reading the recent one by Stephen Gately though, because as a child I was a massiv fan of Boyzone! ;-) So maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised!

  11. Purely because I understand the appeal more for a child seeing a book written by their favourite actor/singer, than for an adult. I've never read any fictional books written by a celeb

    I don't know how many celebs write 'adult' fiction. To me it seems as if they all write children's books b/c either a) children's and YA is hot or b)they think it's the 'easiest' to do (HA HA HA!!!)

    I can't be sure, but I think the ratio of celeb fiction to celeb children's is about 1:50 (do you like my totally made up, grabbed from the sky math?)

  12. Love this post, Jenn. "c" is what I always tell people whining about celeb books. You can get up in arms about Lauren Conrad, or you can hope that Harper is making enough money off of her book to give a longshot a chance. Amen!

  13. Anonymous11:28 AM

    Wow. As the wife of a professional athlete, this is a tough one. The English major in me concurs with Anonymous and Jane, while the wife of the football star knows the interest celebrity lives arouse and the lucrative publishing deal that could be spawned due to that interest.

    The irritation stems from people's frustration (myself included) who make writing a vocation. We toil away at our craft for years, studying English, to watch a celebrity get a free publishing pass because their name carries some weight. The rules are bent. There's no formality to the process.

    I'm only speaking about athletes here but, I can attest to the fact that many, and I've met scores of them over the years, are not qualified to write books of any genre. Their game is their craft.

    Also, while it may have been tongue-in-cheek, you proved Anonymous' and Jane's point by your last two sentences. ;)

  14. clientm11:34 AM

    I don't get particularly heated up, but I would be interested in knowing how often (c) happens, and how often the anti-(c) happens--which is to say, the publisher pays a HUGE advance for the book, it doesn't sell well, the publisher loses money, and the midlist authors are the ones who pay.

  15. Excellent points--makes so much sense to consider these books celebrity merchandise like perfumes or shoes instead of comparing them to all the other books. And I hope the publishers to make tons of money off of them; I'd heard that they don't usually earn out the kajillion-dollar advances, but I don't think they'd keep doing it if that were the case.

    But I still want to punch Lauren Conrad in the face for talking about how easy writing is, since you just have to fill in the blanks on the template the editors send you. Kind of like Mad Libs.

  16. It is somewhat disheartening when I hear a celebrity getting a book deal just because of who they are. I'm more peeved by actors/actresses than musicians because I do believe lyrics are like poetry. But then again, acting is a creative vocation, you would think creative people would want to do other creative things.
    So, go for it, thespians. Line publishers' pockets with money so they can give me a nice contract one day!

  17. clientm - that is an interesting question. Too bad it is so unlikely that a publisher would ever be frank about those numbers. :/


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