The celeb war of words
As authors hit out at the inclusion of star names on the World Book Day shortlist, Ed Power examines whether TV and music personalities are hampering unknown writers' chances
The shiny, happy world of children's publishing has been rocked by a row of uncharacteristic ferocity, with writers complaining about the undue prominence given to celebrity authors.
The controversy kicked off as it was revealed that titles to be celebrated in next year's World Book Day would include many by celebrities. The Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain and McFly's Tom Fletcher are among the high profile figures whose literary contributions will be honoured by the event, prompting complaints from their non-celeb peers.
"How it is that books by a clutch of celebrities could possibly be better than those by some of the wonderful children's authors at work today?" thundered popular children's author David Almond (whose novel Skellig was adapted by Sky) in a Facebook post.
"I guess some folk might say I'm just being elitist or something if I start going on about the choices for next year, if I allow myself to think that the nation's children are being short-changed by this and that the nation's authors and illustrators are being scorned, if I wonder whether the choices show a lack of true seriousness and a narrow understanding of the importance of children's literary culture… but what the hell. That's what I wonder, that's what I think."
Other writers have joined Almond in protesting the prominence shown to celebrity writers.
"The decision to load the 2018 World Book Day promotion with celebrities seems to be a disaster - a step change that signals something rotten in the system," said Anthony McGowan, author of the bestselling Donut Diary series.
But some have defended the decision to include a modest number of celebs.
"Attracting new readers has always been key to World Book Day and this, I believe, is where celebrity, or a media property, can be powerful," wrote Fiona Noble of the Bookseller. "Celebrities and popular brands can offer familiarity, an entry point, a sense that maybe books could be for them after all.
"The landslide of celebrity publishing this year alarms me and I repeat my call for publishers to take care and responsibility for the choices they make," she added. "Celebrity can have a place, but shouldn't be the staple."
Celebrity books constitute a significant chunk of the market - and Ireland is no different in this regard, says Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, author and founder of the Writing.ie resource site. She points to bestsellers by sports stars Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell - both blockbusters which swept all before them. They are far from outliers. The Irish bestseller list for the week before Christmas 2016 was, for instance, dominated by celebrity books - with O'Connell, Graham Norton, David Walliams, Bruce Springsteen and Pippa O'Connor all in the top 10. It's enough to make a struggling author retreat to their freezing garret and sob themselves to sleep. Ireland enjoys its celebrity writers, says Fox O'Loughlin, with sales of celeb books broadly in line with the UK.
"From a publisher perspective, celebrity books make up an important sector of the market as there is generally less risk involved," she says. "It's a big industry, so it's hard to say if it makes up a significant sector. In hardback memoir I would guess it dominates, but in fiction, it's less of an issue."
One booming segment is books by bloggers. Again controversy has surfaced, with YouTube star Zoella suffering a backlash in 2014 as it was revealed she had hired a writer to work on her debut novel, Girl Online.
But when it comes to celebrity writers, it is important, says O'Loughlin, to draw a distinction between non-fiction and fiction. High achievers such as O'Connell and O'Driscoll have fascinating stories to tell and they've worked hard in their chosen profession.
That's in contrast to novels allegedly written by celebs (and often quietly assembled by a ghost-writer). An early pioneer was model Jordan in 2008, who rocked the UK literary establishment as it emerged her two novels had outsold the entire Booker Prize shortlist. Among the literary set, this was taken as evidence the apocalypse was very much nigh (as was the revelation that Kerry Katona hadn't actually read the bestseller autobiography she had allegedly written).
Today, Jordan is just one z-lister among many clamouring for attention on our bookshelves. Russell Brand, Walliams and Madonna have all had a tilt at children's publishing - as has soccer player Frank Lampard, who bequeathed upon the world the unforgettable Frankie's Magic Football.
"I just came up with the idea of the characters for the stories…" was how he explained the creative process. "I couldn't, to be honest, finish a complete book. It's very difficult for me to write a kids' book. I basically have the characters that I've come up with and the storylines… I would love to get to the stage where I can actually write the whole book myself."
Just this week, model and actress Cara Delevingne has published her debut novel Mirror Mirror (co-written with Rowan Coleman). She consulted with Coleman - but insists the central message and tone of the book originated with her. "Sometimes when I write, it's so brutally honest," she said in an interview last weekend. "I write so darkly. This is why writing is so therapeutic for me."
"In an ideal world, children's books should have literary merit, and be written by the person whose name is on the cover," says Irish writer Judi Curtin. "Unfortunately 'celebrity' books often fail to meet either criteria, though they still sell in huge numbers. Though, as always, there are exceptions."
The complaint is that, not only does the focus on celebrity make it harder for unknowns to get into print, it also means publishers are less likely to make the investment required to promote a new writer. Often, the bulk of the marketing budget has gone into promoting the latest sports memoir or celebrity cooking tome, so that less high-profile books have to fight on their own.
"The vogue in celeb children's books is a bit of a mystery to me, especially if the celebs don't have children themselves or, more importantly, don't write the books themselves," says Fox O'Loughlin.
"Someone like Madonna is creative across many disciplines, she writes great songs so it's logical for her to write books. David Walliams is a brilliant author who is one of the highest selling authors in the UK - but there are some who are simply trading on their name and other people are writing books for them
"That's a bit galling for any real writer who's spent years learning their craft… it's inevitable celebs will extend their brands into the book world, and publishers will publish them. But it's definitely infuriating for children's authors, who are multi award-winning writers and have written many many books, to be passed over for a promotion as important as World Book Day for celeb authors whose main credit is a TV show."
"I understand the publisher's need for the occasional 'sure thing'," adds writer Celine Kiernan. "They take a big financial risk on every book they publish. It's possible a celeb book will a guarantee a decent return for investment. This would allow the publisher to take a risk further down the line on work that wowed them content-wise, but had less chance of raking in the profits.
"On the other hand, how profitable do celeb books normally turn out to be? It is possible that the publisher's investment will never be returned, in which case, they'll have wasted money on empty glitz which they could have been putting into books that they truly believed in."
One prominent critic of celebrity children's writers is Dublin novelist John Boyne, who had a bestseller with the Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.
"That drives me crazy," he told USA Today in 2014. "It is really frustrating - it's frustrating because it's unfair to children. Because they'll get a lot of attention, they'll get a lot of marketing budget and so on just because they're a celebrity - the Madonnas, the Ricky Gervaises, the Russell Brands… they're just writing nonsense, rubbish. And this is what children, when they go into the children's section of the bookshop, are confronted by. And it's because celebrities just think: "Oh, I can knock off a children's book." It's terrible.
"This makes it very difficult for talented unknown writers to find a publisher," adds Judi Curtin.
"When they manage to jump this first hurdle, newcomers often find that there is no promotional budget available to them, as it has been exhausted on the singers, bakers, sportspeople and people who are famous for being famous. This is disheartening for writers, but worse, it is shortchanging our young readers. Children deserve great books, and in our culture of celebrity, there is a danger that this will be forgotten. "