When Celebrities Write Books
There’s a saying: Everyone has a novel in them. And a lot of people seem to believe that, not the least of which is any number of celebrities who have tried to pen books.
We’ve all seen the inevitable biographies and autobiographies that fill up bookstore shelves at this time of year. Someone has written another book about Elvis Presley. Some pop star pens her memoirs, usually with the help of a ghost writer and copious editing, so much so that you don’t know if the pop-tart even wrote anything or just said, “Yeah, that looks good, but can we make me more beautiful?”
Most struggling writers look at this kind of filth and start seeing red. Many readers bemoan the situation as well: Why are publishers wasting money on this?! Writers, understandably, wish publishers would take a gamble and give them even a fraction of what they paid the celebrity to slap their picture on the front cover and write, “My Story” in a fancy font.
Readers who complain are likely to point out many of their favorite authors get short shrift from publishers. Why are we paying movie stars and models to write anything when we could be getting more from the next George R.R. Martin or an up-and-coming unknown? Readers are often a devoted bunch, even if their favorite writer works in a niche arena. They’d defend even a fractional pay raise for their idols.
They’re also more likely to defend the sanctity of literature itself. We already bitch about how many “bad books” publishers churn out. Why add to the pile by inking a deal with a high-profile name who doesn’t have proven writing ability?
And that’s another thing: Why do unproven celebrity writers get huge advances while “nobody” authors get written off in the slush pile?
Hook, Line, and Sinker
If we stop and think about it for a moment, we know why publishers do this. People buy these books. People buy books about historical figures like John F. Kennedy and Elvis. They might also pick up the autobiography of a favorite actor, musician, or comedian. These things sell.
In an industry where most marketing execs toss their hands up and say, “I don’t know what sells books,” celebrity books are pretty much guaranteed sales. People are reluctant to pick up new, unproven writers, but they’ll grab up a book about their favorite band as soon as you slap the lead singer’s picture on it.
Publishers love these books for that.
Readers Should Love Them Too
These kinds of books can also benefit readers. I know of at least one press in Toronto that publishes highly commercial, licensed merchandise titles. They churn these things out, then use the proceeds to fund publishing literary fiction. That’s the kind of stuff that rarely makes money—but it’s considered high art.
If you’re selling 100,000 copies of the latest Kim Kardashian autobiography, you can likely afford to take a gamble on that speculative fiction piece that’s likely not going to sell at all. It can be a bit of a tradeoff. That’s why we get absolutely inundated with this kind of crap.
Of course, the inevitable conundrum is how much the publisher pays to “buy” the celebrity for their book. Even if the book sells a million copies, could the funds that went into its production not have gone toward funding that literary fiction novel or that speculative science fiction anthology?
What I’ve been talking about to this point is the pure celebrity endorsement book: autobiographies, memoirs, and biographies. What I haven’t touched on is the cases where celebrities venture into writing fiction.
Here, authors and readers would seem to have a more legitimate argument. Just because someone’s a name doesn’t mean they’re a writer. Some celebrities simply should stay far, far away from pen and paper. Forever. Perhaps they should even be banned. Good examples of this genre include Jersey Shore’s Snooki and her foray into fiction (once upon a time, hilariously narrated by a very deep-voiced announcer at the CBC here in Canada) or Kendall and Kylie Jenner’s weird-ass Rebels: City of Indra: The Story of Lex and Livia. Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, and 50 Cent have all written fiction. All of them have been panned.
In some cases, celebrities writing fiction turns out surprisingly well. Finding out a favorite celebrity also has a knack for writing is kind of like discovering a talented musician is also a good actor or a great comedian. The cross-over can be pleasant, even enjoyable. Examples might include Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller or Lauren Graham’s well-received Someday, Someday, Maybe.
The vast majority of these deals aren’t pleasant surprises, however. They’re forays into idiocy. Publishers bank on the celebrity’s name and network to sell copies of the book, no matter how bad it is.
And they’re not exactly wrong. The Jenner sisters were universally mocked and panned. Snooki’s novel was atrociously bad. Some entries get mixed reviews, but we keep buying these goddamn books.
Why Do We Keep Looking?
I think part of it is schaudenfreud; the idea of a successful celebrity failing is enticing. It’s for that reason we want to pick up a book by Tyra Banks and laugh at how bad it is. We want to mock Kendall and Kylie Jenner for having the audacity to think they could write a book. We want to pan Snooki’s efforts. Why? Well, first and foremost, because a lot of us know just how hard it is to write a book. We also know how hard it is to sell a book.
But more than that, it’s the reality TV thing: We want to laugh at these people. We want to see them fail to feel better about ourselves. Tyra Banks is an incredibly beautiful, successful woman. We want to see her fail at writing a book because we want to feel better about ourselves—we want to say, “There, see, Tyra Banks sucks at some things. I could write a better book!”
Frustrating as it is to see publishers dump money on this kind of crap, rather than supporting people we believe to be “true” writers, we snap it up because we want to watch people fail.
They’re Probably Here to Stay
Not all of us, of course, but think about how many of us read about such-and-such a celebrity getting a book deal and rolled our eyes or took to Twitter to complain about the unfairness of it all. Or when we snickered about that book review absolutely panning a celebrity-written book.
If nothing else at all, celebrity books can be entertaining. They’re either so bad it’s funny, or they’re surprisingly well done. And, in some cases, they’re helping publishers keep the lights on to actually produce more of the stuff we do want.