On Celebrity Authors
A topic guaranteed to raise the hackles of children’s authors is the Celebrity Author.
Celebrity has always sold; endorsements make up a third or more of the salary of many major sports stars. But writing seems to be the one activity celebrities turn to more than any other.
For example, there are very few celebrities who use their fame to sell sculptures; no-one would expect Brighton to field Megan Markle at right back just because she’s famous; and there’s only so much autotune can do to turn a celebrity into a singer (not that that has stopped people trying).
So, what is different about writing books and, in particular, children’s books? Here’s my theory:
The belief that everyone can write. After all, we’ve all been doing it since our first day at school, so we must be good at it, right?
Children’s books are seen as especially easy to write because they are shorter and the public are less directly critical. You only have to look at reviews on places like Amazon to see that children’s books in general get an easier ride than adult books.
Autobiographies. We expect celebrities to write their own life story at some point, so why not a fiction story? After all, there is often overlap between the two…
Hidden help. It’s much easier to have a ghost writer and a ghost singer.
The way that books make money. Publishers can shift lots of copies on the strength of the name and pull in significant revenue before the general consensus about the quality of the work is reached. With music, in comparison, this isn’t really possible. Once a single is released, you need tens of millions of plays on streaming platforms, coupled to merchandise and gig revenue, to make any real money. A bad celebrity book has much more chance of a successful return than a bad celebrity single.
Are we right to get so irritated by celebrity books? Well, yes and no. I don’t think celebrities really impact the sales of everyone else’s books that much; they make up just one or two percent of releases and will quickly sink if they’re no good. Celebrity books are a bit like doughnuts for publishers - they are tasty and filling now and then, but you can’t live on them. My ambition is to become a publisher’s potato - a reliable staple they turn to again and again, with the occasional bag of chips thrown in for a treat.
However, I think celebrity books perpetuate the myth that writing for children is easy, and that is damaging for everyone. I was a professional writer for 15 years before I even started looking at children’s books. Seven years of hard work later, I still haven’t secured an agent, let alone got a book deal.
Writing should be treated the same as any other profession. Usain Bolt, the fastest man ever and a capable footballer, couldn’t even get on the team sheet for a largely unknown Australian side, let alone Manchester United. This is right and proper; his ability in one aspect of sport did not give him the right to perform in another.
I’m not sure the book industry will ever wean themselves off their doughnut habit completely, but we should keep the treats to special occasions, only buy the very best, and spend the rest on potatoes.