The Times rang me up yesterday asking me to write a piece about celebrity books. It was the middle of the afternoon and I had work to do so couldn't promise to file the copy in time (later that day) and suggested they try elsewhere, although I would attempt to knock something out if I could.
The celebrity memoir is dead. Apparently.
After a few years dominating the festive book charts the A, B (and, let’s face it C, D and Z list) celebrities are losing their appeal. A glance at this week’s bestseller charts shows only Ant & Dec in the top ten and just Peter Kay and Frankie Boyle in the rest of the top twenty.
Famous names that don’t make the Top 50 include Jack Dee, Katie Price and Ozzy Osbourne. Poor Justin Lee Collins can’t even crack the bestselling 250 titles in the country.
What has gone wrong?
Well, firstly, there are simply other things selling better. Five of the top ten are books in the Twilight series, one is Dan Brown’s latest work of genius and another is that hardy perennial Guinness Book of World Records. Even the combined forces of every stand-up comedian and reality star in the land can’t really compete against that sort of line-up. Perhaps this just isn’t their year.
Then you have the law of diminishing returns. You cannot expect the same sort of books to sell the same sort of quantities every single year. If you bought your mum Sheila Hancock’s book in 2007 and Dawn French’s memoirs last year you may well decide to mix things up a bit and give her a nice cardy this time round.
So, Christmas isn’t looking too jolly for some of our favourite TV stars, but are things really all that bad? We are talking about books that, even if they aren’t topping the charts, are still selling thousands of copies – in some cases tens of thousands of copies – every week. Some of them will have shifted well into six figures by the time Santa plops down the chimney.
Most publishers would rip your arm off for those sorts of sales. Any book that sells 20,000 copies has done extremely well. Most of the celeb titles will end up clearing way in excess of that. How can a book that sells, say, 50,000 copies be considered a failure?
The answer, of course, is all about the advance. 50,000 books is a great result unless you have paid someone £1m for the privilege of publishing it. Then it looks rather shabby. Many of the ‘under-performing’ celebrity memoirs doing the rounds at the moment were bought for six-figure (or even seven-figure) sums, effectively rendering their performance disappointing.
This is a real shame as many, OK some, of the books in question are really rather good – genuinely interesting, funny and well-written stories from people of considerable talent. It isn’t their fault that the market is changing or that teenage girls are starting to get all excited about vampires. You could point a finger of blame at publishers for paying such large sums or agents for demanding them but publishing any book has always been a gamble. It is just that this Christmas some of the gambles have been more costly than normal.
Will this mean a wholesale change for next year? I am pretty sure that next Christmas will see a new array of celebs flexing their literary muscles and they will continue to do so while people still want to read them. Perhaps not as many as in the past but more than enough to make it worthwhile. We’ll just see a few less zeroes on the advance cheque.