Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed a proliferation of celebrity authors of children’s books. So far this year we have announcements of imminent books from Danny Baker, Dermot O’Leary, Fearne Cotton, and most recently, Miranda Hart. This week, I noticed that Jessica Ennis-Hill has a seven book series being published. Earlier this month, I myself reviewed the latest offering – a middle grade fiction novel from DJ Christian O’Connell. Others, of course, include David Baddiel, David Walliams, Russell Brand, Frank Lampard, Pharrell Williams, in fact the list goes on and on*
Some of them write their own stuff, and some of the books are ghost-written. And some of the books are good, some average, and some awful. I’ve yet to come across a great one – but you can let me know via my twitter handle if I’m wrong about that. So I can’t, and wouldn’t want, to tarnish them all with the same brush. For example, I happen to know that Chris Hoy’s books are written (or co-written depending on the source) by a really talented children’s writer, Joanna Nadin – and it shows. The plots work well, they are paced nicely, and I’ve rather enjoyed them. Ennis-Hill’s books name Elen Caldecott (a professional children’s author) as a co-author (a visible ghost, which must be progress on an invisible ghost-writer), and Elen’s a writer I admire greatly.
Kids like celeb authors. Well some kids enjoy some of them. They like the David Walliams books apparently – they’re certainly popular among the kids I work with. Although none I know claim that any of his titles are their ‘favourite’ books. But there is one thing these children have in common – they all have access to this celeb’s books.
The celebrity books are face out in the booksellers (chains at least). They have high profile, high sales, good discounts, press coverage, they appear on the World Book Day book list. So, children associate children’s books with celebrity. Is that bad? Yes, and here’s why.
Firstly, it belittles the writing of the book. It promotes the thinking that it’s not hard to do – look Chris Hoy can win Olympic medals and churn out a few kids’ stories. David Walliams is on Britain’s Got Talent and numerous comedy shows, but will also churn out another children’s book. Look, Dermot O’Leary can present the X-Factor and write a book. Celebrities give the impression that writing a book is easy – an extension to their brand, a spare time project.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if most ‘ordinary’ children’s authors can write full time. Most have other jobs; teaching in schools, working as booksellers, teaching creative writing etc. But they do these other jobs as necessities to bring in the money to pay the mortgage. If they could, they would all write full time.
Because it’s hard! Writing a good book takes lots of thought, and rewrites and editing, and more rewrites. It takes time and dedication and perseverance (and resilience). Because to succeed when you’re a nobody is hard. When you hear of authors having their books rejected (SF Said 90 times, Malorie Blackman 82 times, even Anne Frank’s Diary was rejected 15 times), it’s because they were penned by unknowns.
So it takes a really good book to make the cut. And that takes hard work. And you need to have the right topic, at the right time, because you’re a person that nobody’s heard of. One agent told me: “it takes an enormous amount of work and energy to launch a debut author, and we have to feel real passion for a project to talk about it for years and years.”
That’s just not the case for celebrity authors – it doesn’t take the same amount of work and energy, and sometimes it can be the passion for the person rather than the project that gives it sales for years and years. After television appearances, the book’s sales take care of themselves – the book doesn’t need its own publicist in the same way that a writer holed up at home does.
And so, and this is my second point, I can’t help but think that the bar for acceptance is lower for celebrities. There’s a readymade readership, and that’s why publishers take them on (most celebs already have the agent). They don’t have to spend years honing their craft to make the book noticeable on the slush pile. Their books just don’t have to be as good.
The given excuse in the industry is that the big names pay the salaries of the publishers, editors, agents, distributors, printers and booksellers, thereby giving leeway for the publisher to take the odd punt on a nobody. But how many good stories are we missing because the space has been taken by a celeb?
And thirdly, professional authors (not celebrities) are feeling the bite of the celebrity cult. There’s only so much space in the bookstores, only so many shelves in a library, columns on a review page. They still have to pitch their books to publishers, even once established. And there’s a disparity in the advances, with some celebrities receiving six figure sums, and professionals receiving low four figures. Ie. Wealth bestows wealth. Are we squeezing out not just new talent, but established talent?
Of course for the professional writers hired as ghost writers or visible ghosts on the celebrity books, there is a massive plus, and not just in monetary terms. Elen Caldecott kindly took the time to explain to me how beneficial she has found being the visible ghost behind Jessica Ennis-Hill’s new series:
“Working with Jessica has allowed me to take risks which would not normally be allowed within this (small c) conservative industry. I have been desperate to write a working-class, northern book for years now, but copy editors will standardise text to ‘Surrey English’. As Jessica tells her stories in her Sheffield accent, it was crucial to both of us that the text reflect this.”
“It’s the weight of the ‘brand’ name on the cover that has allowed this artistic risk to be taken…I can’t tell you how excited I was to be given a chance to do this.”
It’s an industry that is scared to take risks without a celebrity facia. Understandable in these difficult times, but a shame – yes.
Also, a celebrity name draws in those readers who might not otherwise reach for a book. This is a more palatable reason for celeb authors with visible ghosts, only in that if it gets children reading, then it can’t be wrong. However, why do celebrities have to be named as the ‘author’? Why not just endorse it (cover stickers/photos/quotes)? Look what Richard and Judy did for the fiction book market? What Zoella is doing for the YA book market with her WHSmith book club? Why not Miranda Hart’s ‘funniest children’s books’ list?
Because lastly, the message we’re giving children is that writing isn’t open to everyone, artistic freedom isn’t open to everyone. It demonstrates that to succeed in the book world you have to be famous first. Or rich. And outgoing. Which isn’t the case. Writing is for everyone, and children need to know that. Some of the best writers have been downright reclusive.
I’m not saying celebrities shouldn’t try their hand at writing, I’m not saying all their books are bad. I’m just saying let’s stop sending this message to kids about authors, and stop giving them second-rate books. As a society, we need to stop valuing average quality from celebrities over top quality from professionals.
Let’s tell children that ANYONE can write a book. But it’s not easy – it takes hard work, grit and determination – like being good at anything in life – you can’t just have it handed to you on a plate.
*Isla Fisher, Holly Willoughby, Ellie Simmonds, Theo Walcott, Peter Andre, Julian Clary, John Travolta, Katie Price, Madonna, Ricky Gervais, Barack Obama, Harry Hill, Kylie, Julie Andrews, Gloria Estefan, Will Smith, Julianna Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, …