07.19.10

The Celebrity Book Frenzy

The successes of Chelsea Handler and Tori Spelling have sent desperate book publishers on a spending spree that will surely backfire. Anna David goes inside the trend.

The successes of Chelsea Handler and Tori Spelling have sent desperate book publishers on a spending spree that will surely backfire—and already has in the recent cases of Sarah Silverman and Kate Gosselin. Anna David goes inside the trend.

To be a celebrity today is to either have a book out or be in the process of negotiating your contract for one. In a recent month, after all, deals were announced for Demi Moore, Ellen DeGeneres, Michael Caine, Star Jones, Ace Frehley from KISS, Rob Lowe, Barbara Eden, and Soleil Moon Frye, not to mention a cookbook for Eva Longoria. It’s the third book for DeGeneres, the second for Caine, and though it’s the first for Moore, her price tag was reportedly $2 million.

In some ways, this makes sense—celebrities dominate our magazines and blogs and Americans appear to have a neverending passion for reading about their lives. And the public doesn’t care that these books are almost never written by the actual celebrity, nor do they mind the fees being paid (reportedly $6 million for Tina Fey, $7 million for Jerry Seinfeld, and more than $7 million for Keith Richards).

In other ways, it does not make sense. Try saying “Tori Spelling, authoress” with a straight face.

Publishing is experiencing a glut in celebrity tomes that hasn’t been seen since the '90s, when comedians like Jerry Seinfeld ( Seinlanguage, 1993), Paul Reiser ( Couplehood, 1995 and Babyhood, 1998), and Ellen DeGeneres ( My Point… And I Do Have One, 1995) discovered just how much extra-curricular cash—and increased visibility—could come through the page. The boom, in that era, ended in a crash—with Reiser and Whoopi Goldberg’s books being declared “ colossal failures,” while works by Mia Farrow and Jay Leno were merely considered “ disappointments.” But the '90s was a while ago and hope springs eternal—especially for a business that has been in freefall mode for the past few years. “Celebrity book deals are the closest thing the publishing industry has to a sure bet,” says Jason Boog, the editor of the publishing blog GalleyCat. Adds Ron Hogan, the former director of strategy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “This is the way business is done now. It’s kind of like an addiction: Publishers keep putting all their chips on these books and for every dozen hands they don’t win, there’s one that works well enough for everyone to believe in the process.”

We mostly have Chelsea Handler to thank—or blame, depending on your point of view—for the current wave. Handler’s first collection of essays, My Horizontal Life, was snapped up for $40,000 by Bloomsbury in 2004. It sold moderately well, and Judith Regan—the former queen of celebrity book deals, thanks to her tenacious pursuit of not-entirely obvious celebrities and refusal to overpay—bought her second essay book, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea. But then Regan Books imploded just before Handler’s nightly E! show began airing, and the Vodka rights shuffled over to the Gallery division at Simon & Schuster. The result? Vodka shot to the top of The New York Times bestseller list and has remained there for 47 weeks (the paperback version has been there for 28 weeks). Life has sold 591,000, while 360,000 copies of Handler’s latest book, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang (purchased for a rumored $1 million), have sold since its March release. (All of the sales figures in this story come from Nielsen BookScan, which covers around 75 percent of retail sales.)

Theories abound as to how the comely comedian has been able to so well—she’s funny, she’s open, she talks about drinking and sex, and she actually writes her books herself are some of the theories—but the fact is that “no one expected it,” says a book editor.

We mostly have Chelsea Handler to thank—or blame, depending on your point of view—for the current wave.

Now let’s turn our attention to the other linchpin behind the current Celebrity Book Frenzy. In March 2008, Tori Spelling, mostly known for being the world’s luckiest recipient of nepotism, for some nasty feuding with her mom, and for being able to take a joke, released STORItelling, a gossipy read about her privileged childhood, plastic surgeries, and failed marriage. Could the world possibly care about the musings of someone who starred in a movie (rather awesomely) titled Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? Why yes, they could—in droves: STORItelling was on the Times Hardcover Nonfiction list for 19 weeks and was followed by Mommyhood (four weeks on the list) and Unchartered Territori (three weeks on the list but it was only released on June 15—give it time).

The combination of Spelling’s success with Handler’s, insiders say, caused publishers to embark on a celebrity book-buying binge that is now resulting in some serious flops: Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter, which came out in April and has only sold 34,000. The (rumored) deal was for over $2 million. Kate Gosselin’s I Just Want You to Know: Letters to My Kids on Love, Faith, and Family is also considered a bomb, having sold just 24,000 copies since its April release (her two previous books fared much better).

“The hope is always that it’s going to be a Chelsea Handler type of success,” says David Vigliano, an agent known for selling celebrity tomes at a pretty price (Jenny McCarthy, Anthony Kiedis, Willie Nelson, and The Cobain Journals, among others). Vigliano says that what's happened with the Silverman book is "predictable" because her audience is solely "hipsters and guys who think she's hot." He adds, "If Bedwetter sells 150,000 copies, they’re lucky.” (For a $2 million book to earn out, it would have to sell 500,000 copies.)

Maureen O’Neal, a former editor at Regan Books, says that success in this realm comes down to staying on a theme (i.e.: drinking and sleeping around, mommyhood in Hollywood) and giving the big bucks to those who have the best platforms. “People like Artie Lange [ Too Fat to Fish] and Chelsea could promote their books on a daily basis,” O’Neal notes. (Silverman’s show, The Sarah Silverman Program, was canceled in May—a month before Bedwetter was released.) The problem for reality stars, according to O’Neal, is that publishers don’t know when they’re making the deals how the star will end up being portrayed. “The Countess’ [Luann deLesseps from The Real Housewives of New York City] book was hard because she became more and more unlikable on the show,” says O’Neal. “And Jill Zarin’s was a great idea but she self-destructed.” Yet for every stumble, there’s an even greater success. And with Regan no longer in the game, the reigning publisher of these successes is Jennifer Bergstrom, vice president and editor in chief of Gallery at Simon & Schuster. In addition to Handler’s Vodka and Spelling’s three books, she’s responsible for Kendra Wilkinson’s Sliding Into Home, which will debut at No. 4 on the Times Hardcover Nonfiction list on July 25, as well as books by Mackenzie Phillips ( High on Arrival) and Melissa Gilbert ( Prairie Tale). Coming down the pipe for Bergstrom are two novels thinly masking true tales, one by Lisa Rinna and another by Star Jones—and more memoirs (Kate Jackson, Bret Michaels).

Bergstrom’s gift isn’t just at going after the celebrities who are going to hit; it’s also in her timing. She bought Bret Michaels’ book when Rock of Love first aired in 2007, but held on to it, waiting for the “right platform.” The Celebrity Apprentice winner and brain hemorrhage survivor’s book, Roses & Thorns, will now be released this November.

When it comes to determining which books might replicate Handler’s success and which end up in the remainder bin, Vigliano says it all comes down to the celebrity having a passion for their story. “There’s a big difference between a publisher saying, ‘That person’s hot, let’s throw a lot of money at them and someone doing a book because they believe in it,” he says.

Agent Jason Ashlock, on the other hand, says that predicting which of these books will take off is a bit more like reading tea leaves. “These are gambles,” he says. “Some make you look brilliant while others make you look stupid. These days, with the state publishing is in, it’s more likely that you’re going to look stupid.”

Spending a fortune on a book that fails isn’t, it seems, too much of a concern for editors at publishing houses. “There’s this sort of ‘Let’s worry about what we paid for it later’ thinking,” says O’Neal. And, in a business of high turnover, she adds, “There’s also an attitude of ‘Well I could be gone by the time this comes out so it [a failure] won’t be on me.’”

But the celebrity book is getting refined somewhat. Bergstrom’s new approach is to focus on celebrities who are experts in something; she cites Suzanne Somers on women’s health and Alicia Silverstone on veganism as people who took relatable topics and then doled out solid advice. But for all of Bergstrom’s success in the genre, she’s the first to admit that the overall business plan for these books isn’t great. “The main difference between celebrity books now and celebrity books a decade ago,” she says, “is that these days, the advances are higher and the sales are lower.”

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Anna David is the author of the novels Party Girl and Bought and has written for The New York Times, Playboy, Details, Cosmo, and Redbook, among other publications. Her most recent book, Reality Matters, is an anthology of essays that she edited about reality shows.