Gold-Plated Nothings: Celebrity Books in the Literary World

After a dose of political intrigue, international news and the unsolicited opinions of numerous journalists, my surreptitious lurking in the entertainment section revealed an interesting piece of news. Comedian Amy Shumer has landed a book deal, with an advance suspected to be around $8 million dollars. I almost fell off my chair. As a young editor working for a small press, that kind of money around an advance is still awe-inspiring. But as I thought about it more, it increasingly began to disturb me.

Before we go any further though, I want to make it clear that this is not a rant about Amy. I’m a huge fan of her work, and she can make me laugh harder than I thought possible. But her work is as a comedian, in stand-up, television, and film. What she isn’t, is an author.

We can be pedantic all we want about what the term author means. If whether all you have to do to be an author is write something, or if all it takes to be considered one is to be published. But the increasing rise of celebrity ‘authors’ bodes ill for the rest of the literary industry, as they take away from those who wish to write more than just a recap of their lives and their endearing, charming, hilarious or heartbreaking thoughts.

Books published by celebrities usually constitute autobiography, memoir, or collection of thoughts and essays. There’s the occasional cookbook of lifestyle guide, and British celebrity Katie Price, also known as Jordan, has written a novel. For the most part, these books fail to add much to the literary landscape, and rely on our cultural fascination with the lives of celebrities. The quality of the writing varies greatly, the story is often much the same – young aspiring star walks the hard road to achieve their dreams, and examines the struggle with being rich, famous and adored.

By all means, worship a star if you want to. Go see their movies, hang off their television interviews, and buy the products they endorse with that winning smile. But what do their books really add to that? More of the same things you see in their films, their stand-up, their interviews. They may be entertaining reads for those obsessed with their favourite celebrity, but as books, they often fail the test of time, and become one time reads to collect dust on your bookshelves.

And these books are doing a significant amount of dust collecting. In The New York Times bestseller list from this week alone, almost half of the top twenty are written by some celebrity, whether they be from the comedic, film or political persuasion.

With such solid represent in the bestseller lists, we can see why publishers are so keen to embrace these books, and why Amy has been given such a huge advance. No doubt her book will make it a number of times over. But it displays a worrying trend of pursuing financial gain to the detriment of literary quality.

In an increasingly risk-averse market, the booming celebrity book industry produces numerous carbon copy memoirs that make bank for their publishers, and their authors. But this takes the time and energy away from less well known authors, as they work to produce original and painstakingly crafted works, only to have them rejected because they won’t sell the same way the glittering, celebrity endorsed hardbacks will.

When the bestseller lists indicate a particular trend, naturally publishers are going to jump on as quickly as possible, ever thinking about that bottom line. The only solution for those who wish to patron higher quality literature is to of course, stop buying celebrity books. But in a society obsessed with the minute movements of celebrities, I don’t see that happening any time soon. The cost is, and will always be, the smaller authors, those who haven’t yet got the money, the influence or the fame behind them to push a book like a celebrity can.

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The Shelving Game

In some of our marketing blog posts, you would have heard Brendan or I talk about the need for small publishers to look at alternative ways of selling and advertising books, other than bookstores. What you small press aficionados may have already noticed in your search for the perfect indie novel is that you will rarely find a small press book on the gleaming shelves of a shiny bookstore, particularly if that bookstore is a chain.

You may have bemoaned this fact as you drag your feet away from the rows and rows of choices, back to Book Depository, Amazon, or even the publisher or author’s own website to find what you’re looking for. It’s definitely a pain, but many people don’t generally question why. What is it about the organisation of bookstores that prevent small press from getting a real foothold?

Start by thinking about your favourite bookstore. Picture it in your mind. Whoa! There’s SO MANY BOOKS. I always find it a bit overwhelming when I walk into a bookstore. There’s a multitude of choices, and that’s the reason very few people are still brave enough to venture into one with me.

But step back for a moment. That choice that we’re all confronted with, those who own the bookstore are confronted with that decision on a far larger scale when they are considering how to stock their store. Those seemingly endless shelves hold only a small fraction of all the possible books a store could stock. There is so much choice; bookstores need to find a way of cutting through them all.

Obviously, part of what they decide to stock is based on demand. If five customers a day come in and want a particular book, then it makes sense to start getting a few on the shelves. Customers are notoriously impatient people, and will be far more satisfied with their experience if they don’t have to wait a couple of days for their book to be ordered in.

But another key part of the decision making process are distributors. These are companies that act like sales executives for books, and liaise with bookstores to get books on shelves. They often provide promotional material for bookstores, and have large selections that sellers can choose from.

Like everything else in this world, they cost money. Often a lot of it. Therefore, those with the most books to sell, and who usually publish books in high demand, have the most to gain from a distributor. If you’ve only published one book, or even only ten, the cost of a distributor will be far more prohibitive. So once again, we have a means for accessing consumers dominated by the large publishing houses.

If you aren’t with a distributor, your chances of getting on the shelves are much lower. Distributors are respected companies, and the fact that they accept a book, author, or publisher into their repertoire is a vote of confidence. A distributor with a nice shiny catalogue will always be considered more respectable than an author who can’t afford such resources off the bat, but is still passionate about what they have produced.

Unfortunately, getting your book into a bookstore isn’t as simple as just sending them a bunch of copies. It involves a complex mix of ordering, permission, returns policies and sales figures. Distributors can smooth this process, which is why they are an important part of getting a book on the shelves. But small press are often left out as big companies and bestsellers take the place of lesser-known books. The fact that small publishers have such difficulty getting into bookstores is often something that prevents their growth, as you can’t make sales if no one sees your product. It’s unfortunate that, although it seems like we have so much choice in a bookstore, the decision on whether to read small press books or not has already been made for us.

if you’re keen to explore what small press has to offer, think about exploring the websites of small publishing houses. Odyssey conducts sales through its own website, as well as on Amazon and Book Depository, as do most other small presses.

Fostering Beginner’s Luck: Branding Debut and Midlist Authors

As I mentioned in Monday’s blog, one of biggest problems ahead for the publishing industry is the closing of opportunities for debut and midlist authors. There is an unfortunate reduction in paths to publication through a traditional publishing house for both debut authors and for those who are steady but not spectacular on the midlist. There are a variety of factors contributing to this reduction including digital disruption, margin-squeezing and cultural homogenisation, but I won’t go into them in this blog. There are also some fantastic and brave people out there actively working to boost the opportunities for debut and midlist authors. This blog isn’t about them either. Today I want to cover how that shrinking window of opportunity can be combatted at a small press, by both the publisher and the authors.

In my opinion, I think a small press is probably best suited to work with debut and some midlist authors. It might not be the dream scenario for many authors, but it’s the most workable. Small presses, by neccessity, have to help grow new talent or nurture midlist talent as it’s the bread-and-butter of the small press industry. Small presses have both the ability and the motive to get out there and find new voices and take risks on them. Further, many small presses are less constrained by structures which can limit the bigger houses and hence can be more nimble and diverse in their publishing efforts.

One of the most important things a small press can contribute to helping debut and midlist authors to succeed is help with development of the author brand (as well as their writing craft). An author’s brand is an essential tool in the digital world, potentially more so than before Amazon and ebooks. An online presence is a necessity for community engagement. While this may not lead to direct sales, if an author’s brand is properly managed it will lead to a broadening of the base to which authors can hawk their books. It means reaching more new readers more often.

In 2013, bestselling author Neil Gaiman teamed up with a smartphone company to unleash a campaign where he could collaborate with his fans on a series of short stories. The response to the campaign was overwhelmingly positive and highly engaging. Fans submitted story ideas corresponding to themes that Gaiman then turned into short stories. Fans then submitted artworks inspired by the stories. This was a modern, technology-enabled creative conversation between an author and his audience. It worked brilliantly.

Here, Gaiman used his author brand to create momentum for a campaign that wasn’t aimed directly at selling books. Instead, he engaged his readers in a venture that allowed them inside his creative process. The cynical benefits were that Gaiman’s brand and the smartphone company’s brand both got a boost from this campaign. The more idealistic benefit is that Gaiman expanded on an excellent connection with his readers and further developed their passion for him as an author.

The take away for debut and midlist authors is not they can do exactly what Gaiman has done, but that they could replicate it, in part, to create bigger brand awareness and engagement for themselves and their audience. This isn’t a strategy for hard sales of books but more about increasing online presence. The purpose of this is to indirectly or eventually increase sales, but that’s not the direct outcome or immediately tangible reward for the exercise. For authors this is a no-brainer as building a strong brand helps your marketability with publishers and makes them more willing to take a risk on publishing your book.

Another brilliant example of author branding, that is in the physical space rather than digital is Odyssey author Rachel Drummond. This year, Drummond appeared at Supanova with a stall marketing her book The South Forsaken. With distinctive yellow signage and an open and engaging personality for readers, she was a huge success.

These two examples show approaches to branding that should be informative for how authors can push forward both online and at events:

  1. Be Distinctive/Interesting.
  2. Be Open and Engaging.

These seem to be rather generic ideas, but they are fundamentally important for authors when designing and implementing an online presence for their readers to engage with. I haven’t put forth an argument as to whether authors need to do this, because they absolutely do. It’s really non-negotiable unless you’re a bestseller. To get ahead as an author today you need to get out there and engage in whatever way possible.