How Celebrity Authors Move Product
How the game is played—and why boldfaced names have an unfair advantage.
Half of all bestselling books are now written by celebrities, NPR informs us. Even indie booksellers hawk Betty White, Rob Lowe, or Chelsea Handler books, while a novel by an unknown author is as likely to hit the Amazon Top 100 as my neighbor screeching in his shower is to win American Idol.
Which really makes me squirm, since I am a television personality myself, out on the airwaves now discussing my new book, Think, which, uh, blasts our celebrity culture.
There I was on Dr. Phil the other day, telling women to reject star magazines for more worthy fare; on The Early Show, talking about the precipitous decline in American reading; on Joy Behar with my celebrity attorney mother Gloria Allred, talking about our dumbed-down media in a discussion that also included jokes about sex and swallowing; on a local news show, earnestly talking about my book, which blasts local news for giving short shrift to substance.
The irony is thick, and the intellectual contortions involved in some of this hurt my head.
Yet having spent two years researching, drafting, editing, and revising my book, this passion project, this from-my-heart manifesto about how the meteoric rise in tabloid media and reality shows is making women stupid, distracting us from the real issues in our lives and our world—most college women can name more Kardashians than the wars we’re in—and specific steps we can take to push back and reclaim our brains, I’ll do whatever it takes to get the word out, appear on any show—TV, radio, submit to online interviews and endlessly tweet and post.
When I asked Dr. Phil for a blurb months ago, he responded, “I’ll do a show on your book!” It was any author’s—and my—happy dance moment. And in one day it drove my work to No. 28 on Amazon. (Previous glowing print reviews had next to no effect on sales.)
But the book may be a flash in the pan unless readers love it, and pass it around, and tell their friends. Because promotion kick-starts book sales, but after that, the book must deliver or it will tank overnight.
But so would any author. Most without access to my contacts, let’s be honest.
That’s why I’m not overly concerned about the rash of star-written bestsellers. Because as much as I bash our 24/7 celebrity-gossip culture, perhaps television and film folks do have a legit edge when it comes to writing books, based on of all things—gasp—merit. We’re not talking about Snooki or Paris Hilton books (at least, we’re not right now, thank God). We’re talking about some folks with real talent.
TV and film folks do have a legit edge when it comes to writing books, based on of all things—gasp—merit.
Tiny Fey and Chelsea Handler, both with current bestsellers, have been television writers for many years, honing the looks-easy but truly difficult art of comedy writing. Their books do not sit atop bestseller lists merely because of their pretty faces. In fact, it’s high time female comics got some love in publishing. Real laughs abound in Bossypants and Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me. (Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking is on my book’s Recommended Reading list for making me giggle aloud through an entire transcontinental plane ride, wheels up to landing.)
Other current hot star books, like Rob Lowe and Dick van Dyke’s, have garnered rave reviews, and maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Entertainers understand how to tell a story, the arc of a narrative, color and subtlety. Even we lowly TV talking heads, with far lower Q ratings than actors, traffic in words all day long. So—shocker—many celeb books are actually terrific reads, and their bestseller rankings earned.
And Betty White’s got a bestseller, because every single person on the planet loves Betty White. Attack star books and you’re attacking Betty, and that just will not fly.
Of course, many celebrity books fail. Sarah Silverman, Kate Gosselin, and Whoopi Goldberg have all released books with disappointing sales.
But no doubt there remains a big fat fairness differential. Because there’s a limited number of spots on The New York Times bestseller list, and every celeb book there takes the place of what might be a truly great nonfiction work or novel from a talented unknown. They can’t get noticed, can’t get read, can’t get the spark of public attention ignited.
Before my television career, could I have gotten booked on American Morning and Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell and Great Day LA (all coming up this week) to talk about my book? Highly unlikely.
Unknown writers, like no-name actors, singers, and dancers, continue to get squeezed out by our star-obsessed media. That part of the equation ain’t right. Not at all.
Maybe I’ll mention that next week when I’m on The Talk.
Lisa Bloom is an attorney and founder of The Bloom Firm, a CBS News legal analyst, and the author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World.