Celebrity Books And The Rise Of The Boldfaced Bestseller

May 31, 2011

This past week on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction, nine out of 16 titles were "celebrity books" — quickie memoirs, humorous essays, and life lessons dished out by the rich and famous for readers to chew on. Memoirs from Steven Tyler, Dick Van Dyke and Rob Lowe are selling like mad; Shania Twain and Ashley Judd are holding strong. On NPR's bestseller list, which takes its figures from the more independent American Bookseller's Association, celebrity books also held strong, with Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, Betty White and Henry Kissinger all in the top 15. Even indie book shoppers are lunging for the sparkly stuff, it seems.

Of course, this isn't really news. In a culture that puts the stars of 16 & Pregnant on the cover of every tabloid for being, well, 16 and pregnant, the wave has already crested on the fame-worship shores, and by now we are all lucky if we can stay afloat long enough not to drown in it. Even the New York Times recognizes the trend has become ubiquitous: in a recent "Inside the List" column, Jennifer Schuessler wrote, "In the meantime, not even elite special forces seem to be able to fight off the celebrity invasion currently menacing America's bookstores. Forget Osama: what are we going to do about Tina Fey, Steven Tyler, Rob Lowe, Betty White...?"

And on top of the marquee names in nonfiction, the fiction lists are also saturated with blue-chip, commercial authors, celebrities in their own right. James Patterson, David Baldacci, Stieg Larsson, Emily Giffin. It's a fairly hostile environment for new writers across the board.

The latest boom cycle of celeb-iana in publishing brings with it a new examination of why exactly it is happening, and of what bestseller lists really are and what they mean in a new age. As books go increasingly digital (last week, Amazon reported for the first time ever that e-book sales were outpacing those of physical copies), publishers become less willing to churn out big print runs by unproven authors — a group that includes nearly everyone save John Grisham, Jodi Picoult and yes, famous folk.

It becomes a kind of chicken-and-egg question: If publishers want to push a lot of hardcovers (because a $25 book sale is worth a lot more to them than a $12 e-book one), then should they focus primarily on what sells, i.e. celebrity catnip? And if that catnip then becomes the majority of their frontlist, does it then start setting the agenda all on its own? Will it be a snake that ate its own tail, if that snake was on Jersey Shore?

As e-book sales ramp up, the very idea of a "bestseller" is coming up for redefinition. Rock star books like Keith Richards' Life may sell the most copies and gain "bestseller" status, but the real question is whether or not these books, despite their ability to fly off shelves like soup cans before The Rapture, have any real cultural impact. Are we all in the thrall of Chelsea Handler's world view — is she our reigning blonde public intellectual? Or, are the big publishing houses, like the big record labels did when music went mostly digital, becoming the clearing houses for the pop hits while indie publishers are poised to fill in some much-needed innovation? If that's the case, it could be a boon for the indies, and for imprints like Red Lemonade and Electric Literature that are trying to do something wholly new with the digital form. But for the bookstore shopper, the front windows are in danger of looking just like the magazine aisle.

In this month's Bookforum, Ruth Franklin has a fascinating story about bestseller lists, and what they can mean to us as readers. She writes, "a novel by a new writer has a smaller chance of becoming a best seller today than at any other time in history. [Michael] Korda likens it to 'finding an empty seat on a commuter train that's packed with regulars.'" And when the regulars are also all riding first-class by nature of being celebrities, it can lead debut authors to feel like second-class citizens, the bastard children of the publishing world.

What do you think? Do you love the new influx of celebrity books? Are you buying them? How do you think the trend will affect what you read in the future?

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