You ever notice that “As Seen on TV” sticker that manufacturers put on products like belly-busting exercise equipment or detergents that remove the worst kinds of stain? I never got that.
The gizmos and gadgets they are pitching may be super. But just because someone ran an ad on TV about some device that is supposedly the greatest thing since the Veg-O-Matic or the Pocket Fisherman only tells me the advertiser had enough seed money for the ad. If you ask me, the same is true for authors who exploit their television fame to write and market a book.
As much as you might love the amusing star of some sitcom or the beautiful or hunky local news anchor, do you have any guarantee that a book they write will be worth your time and money? In general, no, but if you follow some simple rules, you may have an enjoyable experience in buying a memoir, a diet book, or a novel that you hope will unearth unknown facts about your fan favorite.
The first thing to figure out is whether the object of your affection actually wrote the book. According to Tony Schwartz, who is listed by amazon.com as an “author” of Trump: The Art of the Deal, former reality show host Donald J. Trump didn’t have much more to do with writing that bestseller than he did in producing ties, steaks, or a university that bore his name. The lesson: don’t confuse talent or authenticity with branding.
A good idea is to see if the book you are considering has a co-author and what an internet search shows about his or her contribution to the volume in question. Case in point: former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s historical “Killing” series, which seems to kill off everyone except O’Reilly. The regular co-author is Martin Dugard.
Then there is the “as told to” variety of book. These are often memoirs. If you are lucky, the book you buy will be the result of your favorite celebrity’s sitting down with a writer and a recorder with not too much injected by the writer into your hero’s recollections. See the acknowledgements page for any effusive praise by the “author” about the as-told-to guy. If there is none, maybe a book reviewer will help you out with who the real writer was.
Among the real authors of TV Land, the hardest phonies to spot are those who use a ghostwriter. That’s someone who gets paid to write the book but gets no credit for doing so. I guess those who use ghostwriters are embarrassed to admit they can’t write or are too busy to take the time to do so. The only indisputable truth is, whoever wrote it, the one listed as the sole “author” had total control over the final product.
Exceptions among all these TV authors are, I would argue, famous broadcast journalists, especially those brave enough dive into fiction, a big departure from the common non-fiction accounts they do about their adventures in some war zone or a presidential campaign.
TV journalists who write novels can have an advantage in telling a good story. Based on what their beat was—be it a civil war or the White House—they have a base of research and insight that can be key ingredients for a tale of political intrigue or a spy thriller involving Russians or terrorists.
Famous TV anchors or correspondents tend to do better at writing a good novel if they started out working for a newspaper or magazine where they had to write well to keep their jobs. Print journalists who became successful novelists include David Ignatius of the Washington Post, who writes nifty spy novels based on his overseas and Washington reporting, Michael Connelly, a former Los Angeles Times crime reporter, who writes admirably about detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller, and Thomas Harris, who was working for Argosy magazine when he met an insane surgeon who cut people up into tiny pieces. The result: an inspiration for Hannibal Lecter, the supreme villain of Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs.
TV journalists who turn novelists are a rarer breed, perhaps because not all of them write the scripts they read off the teleprompter. Back in the day, Jim Lehrer, the anchor of the PBS News Hour, wrote more than a dozen well-received novels, including one that had a backstory to the John F. Kennedy assassination. His PBS partner Robert McNeil wrote Breaking News, a behind-the-scenes account of the broadcast news business.
On the other hand, anchors such as CBS’s Walter Cronkite and NBC’s David Brinkley and Chet Huntley stuck pretty much to non-fiction writing, as did Peter Jennings of ABC and more recently NBC’s Lester Holt, CBS’s Scott Pelley, and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour.
Plunging bravely into this void this year is Jake Tapper, CNN’s in-your-face anchor, who has penned The Hellfire Club,” a dark thriller set in Washington, D.C. in the ’50s. It’s a best seller and was well-reviewed.
You might say: Who knew? Well, maybe you if you had taken a bet on a guy who has lived in Washington for a long time and knows where the bodies are buried. The old novel rule is: write what you know. And here is a veteran D.C. guy writing about D.C.
His experience should have given you some confidence about the plot of his book, but can he write? It turns out that Tapper, who started out as a print journalist who covered crime, can indeed.
You might have figured that out if you had used that helpful “Look Inside” feature that gives Amazon customers a sneak peek at the beginning of a story.
Here is how Tapper’s book starts: “He snapped out of the blackness with a mouthful of mud. Charlie Marder coughed up grime and spit silt, then raised himself on his elbows and tried to make sense of where he was.”
By the end of a fast-moving Chapter 1, Marder spots a dead young woman by the side of the road where he woke up, and a helpful friend tells him gravely: “Congressman, grab her feet.”
So aside from a gripping start and an authentic noir tone, what Tapper brings to this tale is an understanding of Washington as an unchanging place of lying and compromise and, of course, sex.
He injects real life characters like Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, along with Kennedy brothers John and Robert, and Senator Joseph McCarthy and his henchman Roy Cohn, who later became President Trump’s main consigliere.
If you roughly substitute McCarthyism for Trumpism, Tapper’s novel has resonance for understanding today’s swampy Washington and most players’ willingness to lie and betray their principles when they aren’t getting laid.
Tapper, whose titles include chief Washington correspondent, has said there is no secret sex-crazed Hellfire Society that he knows of. He just took the framework of what he knew, which included historical research into things like Bobby Kennedy’s closeness to Joe McCarthy, and infused his story with some racy and scary what-ifs.
The what-ifs are important. Some journalists, print and broadcast, do thinly veiled novels about real people and events. These aren’t very satisfying because while readers can have fun guessing who is supposed to be who, they know how the familiar real-life story ends before they start reading.
No danger of that with Tapper. He adds that secret sex club to juice up his tale, sprinkling in a lot of little-known actual historical facts like the alliance between JFK’s dad and Senator McCarthy, nice little nuggets that educate you while his plot compels you to turn the pages.
The only thing better, in the tradition of those “As Seen on TV” stickers, would have been for his ads to have said: “But Wait! There’s More!” offering two of his books for the price of one. For a limited time only, of course.