Celebrity Skin

terrorvisionThere I was thinking Peter Kay was an aberration and that most celeb books don’t earn out their advances. But Philip Stone says he can prove otherwise. He’s the ‘chart editor’ of the Bookseller and a former bookseller at Waterstone’s. In his piece he lists some huge figures for celeb sales and then has a go at literary elitists who insist that publishers should concentrate on books that the author has themselves written, or at least proofread.

Yes, when not lambasting publishers… many snobs bemoan the fact that celebrities outsell literary novelists (perhaps I encourage this a little). It is incredibly difficult to get literary fiction to sell on a large scale, short of a Man Booker win or (previously) a ‘Richard and Judy’ book club selection. Publishers know this. They know it’s a lot easier to sell 100,000 copies of a celeb memoir than it is to sell 10,000 copies of what could well be a great work by a ‘literary novelist’ (Martin Amis’ worth to UK book retailers last year: £0.2m; Alan Titchmarsh: £1.7m). So, shock horror, publishers have a willingness to publish popular books. Yes, by those boo-hoo, horrid little celebs. I know, outrageous!

All of this comes as shocking news to the snobs who are disgusted by the reality of the world we live in—a world in which Katie Price outsells the Man Booker dozen. But this is the world we live in. Stop moaning about it. Publishers give the public what the public wants. Get over it!

Publishers give the public what they want – well, up to a point. Most people I know watch X-Factor, but I can’t see them queuing up for a ghosted autobio of Alex Burke. Icons don’t always translate across media yet Stone’s numbers impress. There are actually people in the UK who will spend maybe like £18.99 on a hardback book, simply because it bears a familiar face from TV. Who knew?

I do and don’t understand the appeal. Some celebrities have interesting lives and stories to tell. Marco Pierre White’s The Devil in the Kitchen is a fascinating insight into the London restaurant trade as well as an inspiring personal story of somehow making it against the odds. And Kerry Katona is such a bizarre, chaotic personality that no publishing novelist would dare base a character on her – the editor would cut it immediately for lack of realism.

But seriously, how much insight and fun can you get from a book by Alan Titchmarsh? Dawn French? David Gest for fuck’s sake?

Whatever its secret, the commercial appeal does annoy actual fiction writers. The irritation is aesthetic, and also territorial. Stuart Evers points out that ‘Celebrity authors and novels can tie up publicity and marketing budgets, deflecting attention away from other authors.’ The disillusioned publisher in Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up ranted for neglected artists when he is forced to publish a worthless book by elite populist columnist Hilary Winshaw.

It’s not enough to be stinking rich, land yourself one of the most powerful jobs in television and have two million readers paying good money every week to find out about the dry rot in your skirting-board: these people want fucking immortality! They want their names in the British Library catalogue, they want their six presentation copies, they want to be able to slot that handsome hardback volume between the Shakespeare and the Tolstoy on their living-room bookshelf. And they’re going to get it. They’re going to get it because people like me know only too well that even if we decide we’ve found the new Dostoevsky, we’re still not going to sell half as many copies as we would of any old crap written by some bloke who reads the weather on the fucking television!

And there’s a suspicion in the back of the mind that most people don’t really want this shit. It’s nothing so vulgar as the manufacture of consent, more the will to belong. You feel you have to buy into a thing because you’ve been told so many times that everyone else has. If you resist, you’re an elitist, a snob, a PC bore – etc. This is Keynes’s beauty contest: ‘It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.’

And yet popular culture isn’t as popular as it seems. Most young people go out on Saturday nights rather than watch Strictly – that was why the sacking of Arlene Phillips was such a PR fuckup for the BBC. Meanwhile there have been nights when televised bowls tournaments get higher ratings than hyped up reality shows.

There’s a slightly manic edge to Stone’s piece. Maybe it’s his Waterstones background. The chain built success on a philosophy of selling books as if they were cans of beans. In the last few years though, it has been hit by online retail, which is cheaper and more convenient with a far wider range. I’ve met a lot of people who worked for Waterstones. They told me stories of mass layoffs, meaningless sales training and supervisory incompetence. A bookseller friend nicknamed one manager ‘Paperclip’ because he couldn’t do anything on Word without consulting the ‘Clippit’ help icon.

There’s a potential positive side to throwing deals at tabloid characters. Alison Flood reckons that ‘The more these celebrity novels sell, the more money publishers will have to fund debut literary fiction writers, poets, biographers; the kinds of books that might not sell hundreds of thousands of copies, which in fact might barely sell 1,000 copies, but which make it all worthwhile.’

That’s the positive side – a kind of tax with the stupid rich funding the creative poor. But is that how it works in publishing today? Does anyone know?


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