Friday, December 05, 2008

The Rich Get Richer. Or Book Deals.

"Maybe writing books will become just the hobby of rich people, or people who can live very cheaply." --from today's Galleycat

About seven years ago, I was looking for work as an editorial assistant. I knew barely anybody in the industry, had no job leads and few contacts. What I did was literally look at the acknowledgments section in books I'd enjoyed, dig up the editor's email address and ask if I could pick their brains about the job and the industry. That way, I figured, if and when a job did open up I'd be more prepared to hit the ground running. 

To my surprise, nearly every editor I contacted agreed to meet with me. I was blown away by the kindness and generosity of the publishing industry. These editors selflessly offered their time and advice (and often armfuls of galleys) to meet with a confused 22-year old who just wanted to work with books. As my career as an editor progressed, and even after I left to write full time, I would happy to offer advice to friends and strangers who asked the same thing of me. Yesterday, I learned that one of the editors who was kind enough to meet with me all those years ago, a woman who acquired and edited some wonderful books, was just laid off. 

For most of my adult life, I wanted nothing more than to work with books. Either as an author, editor, or a brief mental flirtation with being an agent. When I was finally offered a job as an editorial assistant, I knew I would be getting paid very little. My starting salary was $30,000. My very first year, the company canceled its holiday party due to budget constraints and salaries were frozen. My pay did not cross that magic 30k threshold until I'd been in the workforce nearly two full years (though it was thankfully augmented by overtime pay). But you know what? It didn't matter. I loved books, I loved publishing, and I was happy to work at the bottom end of the salary totem pole for a chance to do what I loved. I never wanted to be the kind of person who worked soul-deadening hours in a job I hated just for the chance to watch their bank account grow. I always believed that if you were good at something and worked hard at it, eventually the money would come. Most editorial assistants were in the same boat. My cubicle mate and I could never chat about television shows because she couldn't afford cable. Didn't matter. We loved it. Nobody gets into publishing for the money. Yes, as your career progresses you can make a good living. But that's a long slog, especially if you want to live in New York and literally pay the price that comes with it.

The same thing goes with authors. Nobody writes their first novel for the money. Spending hundreds of hours hunched over a keyboard on the slight chance somebody might be willing to pay you (likely a modest sum that equates to about two or three bucks an hour) for your work is hardly a path to riches. And with the layoffs, restructuring and freezes many companies are facing, chances are it will be even harder for authors to break through and get their first deal.

But there's one group of people who are, if anything, even more valuable in this economic climate, and who will find that there's plenty of money to go around: celebrities. Yes, celebrity books, in a way, are the great barometer of the publishing industry. Few editors like publishing celebrity books.  They do it because publishing a celebrity is the easiest thing in the world, at least from a marketing standpoint (dealing with agents, managers, publicists and healthy egos is another thing entirely). Celebrity books are hugely hit or miss prospects. You hit on someone at the right time (Valerie Bertinelli) it's a monster. You catch someone on the cooling down/frozen period (Taylor Hicks) you take a massive hit. When you publish a celebrity book, you can just hold up the cover and say to the world, "Look, you know him! Did you know he was a meth/sex addict? Read all about it!" And people do. When you publish a first time novelist, if you hold that book up and say, "Hey, you know her!" people will look at you with confusion. And unless you can spend a lot of time, effort and often money to convince them to take a chance, they'll move on to a book by someone they have heard of. 

It's all about recognition. The more recognizable a person is, the easier it is to convince people to plunk down their hard-earned money to read their stories. And with budgets being slashed everywhere, with fewer chances on unknown quantities being taken, name recognition is worth its weight in gold. Just look at the people who've gotten book deals recently:
Mike Piazza
Tina Fey
Sarah Silverman
Jerry Seinfeld (allegedly)
Michael Phelps (is there anything his name isn't on these days?)
Kristin Chenowith
Joe the Plumber
Mary Kate and Ashley Olson
Ivanka Trump
Tera Patrick
Mario Lopez
Todd Bridges (?)
Charlie Murphy (???)
Tila Tequila (?????)
Jodie Sweetin (???????)
Lauren Conrad (??????????????)
Dustin "Screech" Diamond (?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?WTFWTFWTFWTFWFT?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!)

And we all know it's only a matter of time before, sigh, Eliot Spitzer's hooker has trees slaughtered in her name.

Check out this video of authors telling people why they should buy books. Notice anything? That's a lot of celebrities!

When you think of literature, do you really think of Kathie Lee Gifford? I don't know about you, but I think of sweatshops, awkward laughing, and plastic surgery. But that's just me. And look who opens the video...Elmo. Martha Stewart. Jon Stewart. Barbara Walters. Big names, yes, but books are not the first thing you think about when you see these people. Let's continue. We have noted thesp Bill O'Reilly. Jack Donaghy/Alec Baldwin. Cesar Millan. Jim Cramer. Rachael Ray. Hey, wait, is that Dan Brown? Where the heck has he been? And we end with...John Lithgow. Was Tila Tequila not available? Listen, I just saw John Lithgow on Broadway in "All My Sons." Great show. And I didn't see it because I enjoyed his books, I saw it because he's a great actor.

Look, I know celebrity is a vague term. I loved Jon Stewart's AMERICA, and some celebrities (like Barbara Walters) have led fascinating lives deserving of book treatment. But you're fooling yourself if you don't think that Mike Piazza's book is going to be a padded 256 pages, with at least two 16-page photo inserts, containing such insight as, "When Roger Clemens threw that bat at me, it made me upset."

I'm not taking the high road. As an editor, I acquired a few books that were heavily based on personality. The issue I have is that I believe the above quote is becoming more and more painfully true with each layoff and each salary freeze. I worry that the shelves are going to stock fewer passion projects and more D-list celebrities. Celebrities are easy. You can get them on television, have them featured in People and on "Access Hollywood." They're better on camera than that shy debut novelist. I mean, book review sections are being slashed anyway, so the passion project so dependent on good reviews and word of mouth already has two strikes out of the gate. But why depend on a book review when you're guaranteed a mention in Page Six? I worry that the rich, literally, are only going to get richer, while the people who love books--the true authors, the passionate editors, the dedicated publishers, even some creative agents--are the ones who'll be trimmed out of the budget.



Blogger L.J. Sellers said...

Maybe the industry will soon be divided, with major publishers listing only celebrity authors, and small/midsize houses publishing all the fiction, using a better business model than the big houses currently do.

10:35 AM  

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