Does the book publishing industry value fame over craft?

Imogen Davis discusses the latest rise in celebrity authors and the impact it has on non-famous writers

Imogen Davies
12th May 2021
The celebrity book has become more ubiquitous than ever. From Tom Hanks to Michelle Obama, from Lil Nas X to Fearne Cotton, from Richard Osman to Nadya Hussain, the celebrity author now makes up a significant part of the publishing market.

A recent addition to this niche is the children’s book The Bench by Meghan Markle which is set to be published by Penguin Random House in early June. Whilst expectedly stirring up controversy from her critics denouncing the book as a mere cash-grab, the Duchess of Sussex’s venture into book writing poses an interesting question about the nature of celebrity authorship: What sort of impact do public figures have on the publishing industry?

It is hard to browse the shelves of any bookshop now without a celebrity face jumping out at you from the cover of a hardback. A whole slew of household names has taken up the pen. And this, depending on who you turn to, is evidence of publishing innovation or evidence of its decline.

The 60s and 70s saw the birth of this trend as publishers lent on celebrity audiences and popular brands to sell biographies and memoirs. Their appeal has never waned since, and yet, the concept of the celebrity author has significantly evolved. An interesting subset of the celebrity book genre boomed in the mid-2010s. This category is known as the ‘YouTuber book’ speaks to the authenticity and insight audiences want from public figures and proved that publishing authors with an existing platform was a financially viable way for large publishing houses to sell books.

Amazon

Although there seems to be more lenience with celebrity authors of non-fiction, many have begun to author works of fiction for people of all ages and sensibilities. Out with the ghostwriter and in with the multi-talented celeb who can write a good yarn.

This trend has proven to be incredibly popular. The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman was one of 2020’s bestsellers selling almost one million copies and Dawn French’s novel Because of You even made the 2021 Women's Prize for Fiction longlist.

Despite the impressive sales celebrities achieve in this market, they have increasingly garnered criticism from traditional media. While some of this amounts to book snobbery, industry experts have also voiced their concerns. Celebrities and influencers dabbling in writing can become harmful to an already oversaturated market. There is a case to be made for full-time writers and particularly in children’s fiction whose hardship and talent might be overshadowed by celebrities who are granted book deals on the grounds of their ‘sellability.’ Is it a fair playing field when winning contracts can be based on fame rather than craft?

This is not to say that celebrities are not talented writers and especially as so many bestsellers come from debut authors. However, it is important to consider that readers are drawn to familiar names, a phenomenon heightened by a culture of collective reading and book-related FOMO. While celebrities encourage literacy as they aim their books towards young people and audiences who are perhaps not long-time readers, their advances into the world of publishing stifles the creativity of those who are already underrepresented. Arguably the prominence of celebrity authors promotes more selective reading when book deals and bigger marketing budgets are snapped up by the rich and famous.

Celebrities and influencers dabbling in writing can become harmful to an already oversaturated market.

As the children’s previewer for The Bookseller, Fiona Noble, argues ‘Celebrity can have a place, but shouldn't be the staple.’ If the pen is a mighty sword, then celebrity authors wield a double-edged one.

Featured Image: Waterstones

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