Media

Celebrity Stories

Rock arena tours and Baywatch are so five minutes ago. What do I <i>really</i> want to do? Write, of course!
Pamela Anderson's first book, Star, is about a busty blonde who journeys toward fame and riches while having a lot of kinky sex along the way.

But it isn't a memoir. It's a novel.

Anderson has taken pen to paper, the latest in an increasingly long line of celebrity writers. While autobiographies have long been the means by which celebrities get their literary yah-yahs out, these days, they are branching out. (Even though, in an autobiographical twist, the buxom woman on the cover of Star is in fact Anderson.) They are writing children's books, novels, poetry, self-help, and political books. Increasingly, editors seem to think that it's not what you read, but who wrote it that matters.

Celebrities who have published books in the last few years include: Madonna, Spike Lee, Jerry Seinfeld, John Lithgow, Dolly Parton, Carl Reiner, Jay Leno, Maria Shriver, Billy Crystal, Britney Spears, Ethan Hawke, Marlee Matlin, Steve Martin, Al Franken, Jewel, Jamie Lee Curtis, Keith Hernandez, Carrie Fisher, Jane Seymour, Shaquille O'Neal, Ashanti, Julie Andrews, Will Smith, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Buffett, LL Cool J, and Shaggy, among others. More are on the way. Billy Joel, LeAnn Rimes, Paris Hilton, Mia Hamm, and Bob Dylan are coming out with books later this year.

"There are absolutely more books by celebrities on the market now than there used to be," says Sandy Whelchel, Executive Director of the National Writers Association. "Name recognition sells books. There's no doubt about that."

Despite being wooden, didactic, and borrowing a little too heavily from Cinderella, Madonna's first children's book, The English Roses, debuted at No.1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List and stayed in the top 10 for 18 weeks. A week after its publication, Pamela Anderson's novel was number 77 on the Amazon.com sales ranking. After seeing numbers like that, some publishers are looking at celebrities with renewed interest.

Building the Brand

The preferred term for celebrities these days? Entertainers. Don't ghettoize them as singers or actors. Stars are expanding their name (or brand) to include movies, albums, TV shows, product endorsements, restaurants, clothing lines, and more. For them, a book may be just another product with their name on it.

Luckily for them, corporate conglomeration makes branching out that much easier – since one branch is just a small step from the trunk. The same media corporations that control much of the TV, movies, and music in the United States also own the major publishing houses. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. owns HarperCollins, Bertelsmann owns Random House, Time Warner owns Little, Brown, & Company, and Viacom owns Simon & Schuster, as well as MTV, VH1, Showtime, and Nickelodeon.

Given the corporatized convenience, the sudden proliferation of celebrity books may be part of synergy, i.e. cooperative interaction among the subsidiaries of a corporation to make as much money as possible.

"Synergy is a part of the total package with these books," says Neal Wyatt of the American Library Association. "Martha Stewart is a good example of someone who did that – though she did it herself – where she had the books, then the magazine, then the TV show, and they all feed off each other. So yes, there's a bit of a corporate collecting up of different parts of celebrity here."

However, industry experts say that while synergy was the goal when major corporations consolidated in the 1990s, it never quite happened in the publishing world.

"I've always been surprised synergy hasn't worked for books," says Pat Schroeder, CEO of The Association of American Publishers. "They have tried to get it to work, but it never has. So it's really not a one-stop shop where an actor puts out a movie and then says, by the way, I have a book too. It's more like the movie house puts out the movie, and then someone else puts out the book."

She adds that in most cases, it's probably the celebrity who seeks out the publisher, not the other way around.

The Forest for the Trees

On the other hand, some celebrities do seem to have literary ambition. Some, like Jamie Lee Curtis, John Lithgow, Steve Martin and Carrie Fisher have earned respect from critics and readers alike. These celebrities tend to spend more time working on their writing. Martin has written from the beginning of his career, starting with screenplays and then moving to articles in The New Yorker before branching into novels.

"I think celebrity books should be judged by the individual book, not the celebrity," says Wyatt. "Some are very good and some seem like more of a vanity publication, with people just living off their name."

Vanity plays a large part in the plots of many celebrity children's books. Madonna's book is about a blonde girl who everyone is jealous of; Shaquille O'Neal put himself in fairytales; soccer player Mia Hamm's book Winners Never Quit has a girl playing soccer on the cover; Spears writes about a girl who want to be a singer; and Jerry Seinfeld's character is a greedy, wise-cracking kid who demands "NAME CANDY ONLY" on Halloween. The illustrations are likewise similar to the celebrities, with child-like versions of Jerry Seinfeld or Jay Leno gracing the pages.

The proliferation of children's books may signify a certain amount of low expectations, though good children's literature is no easier to write than good adult literature.

Other celebrities barely make the leap to fiction. Ashanti's book, Foolish/Unfoolish: Reflections on Love, is described as "poetry and reflections" – not a far stretch from her songs. The book description notes that she "explores such universal themes as falling head-over heals [sic] in love, becoming insanely jealous, feeling broken-hearted, and being single but having hope for the future. In "No Words," she describes being completely addicted to a new boyfriend; in "Ride Out," she captures what it feels like to be joyriding with your man on a hot summer night; in "Insecure," she writes about telling a suspicious boyfriend to stop driving by her house at night to see if her car is there; and in "Us," she delves into the pain of discovering that your man is cheating on you."

Whether the celebrities are actually writing is another question. Anderson's novel was ghost-written by Eric Shaw Quinn.

"Who knows how much of each book is ghost written and how much of it is written by the person," says Schroeder. "Though I think you would find that a lot more of these books were written by the star than you would think. Most celebrities don't make a lot of money off their books – they want to write because they have something to say."

There are obvious marketing perks to publishing a book by a celebrity. Stars come with built-in audiences and name recognition. Publishers can comfortably expect a certain number of sales, so they will often spend more to promote a book by a celebrity.

Publishers have given celebrities large advances for their books. Even though Ethan Hawke's first novel, The Hottest State, only sold a respectable-but-unexciting 40,000 copies, Hawke received an advance between $400,000 and $500,000 for his next novel, Ash Wednesday. Britney Spears received a $1.25 million for the book she co-wrote with her mom, A Mother's Love, according to Poets & Writers.

While it's true these numbers pale in comparison to the pricetag of a product endorsement – Spear's Pepsi endorsement will bring her $94 million over five years – writing a book can give a celebrity something else: respect.

If, say, you are primarily known for sleeping with rock stars and posing naked in magazines, writing a book might make people take you more seriously. Or, if you have spent your life marketing yourself as an ever-changing pop icon, writing a book for children might give you a soul.

Fewer readers

While celebrities are writing more books than ever before, fewer people are reading. A recent study put out by the National Endowment for the Arts found that, based on 2002 census figures, less than half of Americans read literature and people are buying fewer of all types of books. The U.S. is losing more readers every year at a faster pace, especially among young people.

Meanwhile, writers who have struggled for years to hone their craft are being ignored by large publishing houses.

"I see talented writers all the time who don't have a prayer of getting published because they don't have the big name, so they don't have the accessibility to get into big publishing houses," says Whelchel. "Whereas, Madonna's agent can just call an editor and say she has a book, and of course they're going to jump on it. Publishers have to stop focusing on the bottom line so much and start focusing on putting out decent product."

While the Stephen Kings and Toni Morrisons may have nothing to fear, celebrities may put pressure on the vast majority of writers who do not have name recognition. With thousands of books to choose from, people may gravitate to the book by the celebrity over the book by the unknown writer.

The solution, though, may lie in giving the unknown writers more recognition.

"Newspapers have cut back on book reviews, which is one of the main ways new writers get noticed," says Schroeder. "It's also how they get picked to go on TV and radio shows. Book reviews are terribly important, and the loss of them is a huge tragedy. It's a bigger problem for writers than competing with celebrities."

While that may be true, many writers feel slighted by this influx of celebrity literary pretensions, believing most of them would never be published if they weren't famous.

"These people do not need the money, fame, career, or attention – it's just one more gimmick for them," says Sandra Brown, who writes self-help books for domestic violence victims. "For me, I wish they'd just stay in Hollywood and fake it there."
Joy Lanzendorfer is a freelance writer living in Northern California.
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