05 June 2009

Celebrity: “a weird sort of energy”

One of the most common laments among children’s book creators and fans is that publishers put out too many “celebrity children’s books.” Which I think highlights both the appeal of those books and the problem with them: even from critics, they command more attention and emotion than their numbers really deserve.

One of the best ways to think about celebrity came to me from Michael J. Fox, who should know a bit about the topic. He’s called celebrity a “weird sort of energy” which draws people’s attention as gravity draws mass. Fox has been trying to use that energy to bring attention to Parkinsonism.

Attention is something most books don’t get, and can’t get enough of. So it makes sense for publishers to be pleased with books that bring their own attention-getting “energy” with them.

We’re almost all susceptible to the pull of celebrity. If an Englishwoman you never saw before showed up at your door and offered to read her children’s book to your kids, would you invite her in? Probably not. If you recognized that Englishwoman as Julie Andrews, you’d invite her in and call the neighbors and take photos and post them on your blog...

Celebrity also has its downsides, of course. Just as we look more closely at books by celebrities because we “know” them from TV, so we feel entitled to criticize their books in ways we’d never treat other beginners--without reading them, for example. Again, celebrity “energy” breaks down normal barriers.

Publishers justify issuing popular but unliterary books of all sorts by saying that the revenue they bring lets the firm publish poetry and first novels--i.e., books that don’t sell well, or are risky investments. Unfortunately, the situation isn’t really that simple.

One factor is the evolution of privately owned publishers started by book-lovers into book divisions of publicly held multimedia conglomerates. In that world the law requires executives to focus on returns for shareholders, not literature, even though book executives recognize that good-quality literature can be most profitable in the long run. If book A is very profitable and book B is less so, then one way the company can maximize its profit numbers is by not publishing book B at all.

The most profitable book, however, is the sleeper: small advance, big and long-lasting sales, grateful author, impressed colleagues. That's why even big corporate publishers keep taking their chances on little-known authors. No one can be sure what books will hit and what will miss, even with celebrity authors.

Celebrity books often impose costs on other authors, not just on literature with a capital L. Many celebrity authors siphon disproportionate time and attention from promotional staffs. Usually a firm arranges TV interviews, events, tours, and arranging such promotion for people used to Hollywood publicity standards takes more resources than publishers usually have. Being published at the same time that one’s publicity department is working on a celebrity book isn’t a good spot to be in. That “weird sort of energy” takes over and alters the normal workings of the firm.

Years ago, Jerry Seinfeld hosted a TV special on celebrity before he himself became such a big one. The program was coproduced by the long-defunct magazine Spy, which shows how long ago this was. Among the show’s explorations of celebrity was an “experiment” that started with leading people on a movie-studio tour into a large bare room. A small square box was painted on one corner of the floor. A hidden camera overhead tracked the movement of the people, randomly milling about.

Then the experimenters introduced a celebrity--Ricardo Montalban!--into that environment. He stood in the square and chatted politely with anyone who wanted to talk. And the camera recorded that:

  • As soon as Montalban entered the room and stood still, the people formed a tight crescent about three feet away from him. It was like watching iron filings pulled into lines by a magnet. A “weird sort of energy” indeed!
  • After Montalban left, no one would enter the square where he’d stood--except one woman, who did so for just a second and as a self-conscious lark.
I’d like to think that publishing personnel have some immunity to celebrity energy from seeing how the media machine operates. But about ten years ago I was at a publishing sales conference, presenting the new books I was editing for the upcoming season, and word spread like lightning that there was a celebrity in the hotel.

By a strange coincidence, the celebrity was...Ricardo Montalban! I still remember seeing him far across a lobby, a very tan man in a very white suit, moving slowly and gingerly on the arm of a companion. I remember the discreet buzz that passed among the editors as we spotted him.

I don’t remember what books we published that season.

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