November 28, 2006
This just in! Just because you can act/play football/have a cute nose doesn’t necessarily mean you will be a bestselling author!
Impossible as it may have seemed at the time, when all the publishers were jumping on the celebrity book train as if it were the last transport out of a war-ravaged state, many of this past summer’s celebrity stories have failed to sell. Combine this with the price tags placed upon many of these book deals, and you have the Celebrity Book Deal Hall of Shame. Or Fall of Shame. Both meanings of ‘fall’ apply.
For yes, even though Rupert Everett’s screen presence might induce innocent lovers of his work in historical comedies to go see a film that otherwise wild dogs could not drag them to (Next Best Thing, anyone?), only 15,000 copies of Everett’s book were sold. And as Little, Brown paid Â£1 million for the memoir, entitled Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, they are staring at a significant loss.
And Rupert Everett’s book was hardly the greatest flop, if slightly costlier. Former Home Secretary David Blunkett sold a little over 1,000 copies within the first three weeks in recompense for a Â£400,000 book deal, and Ashley Cole’s book, My Defence, sold 4,000 in six weeks for a comparatively scant Â£250,000 for its author. Indeed, the 37,000 sold copies of Wayne Rooney’s book does make it seem the runaway success of the season, until one realizes that Rooney is running away with Â£4 million for five books over the next 12 years. After five books, I rather imagine that it will be the bookbuying public executing the ‘run away’ maneuver.
Publishers have, in part, Jordan to blame. Her 2004 , Being Jordan, sold 900,000 copies, and set records at WH Smith for the most copies of an autobiography sold in one week. Amazon.co.uk joyously proclaims, “In fact it has turned out to be the surprise darling of the book trade!” Indeed. But the book trade can only have one, or possibly two, surprise darlings (provided each darling’s presence is concealed from the other), and with roughly 60 new celebrity titles last season, we are witnessing a microcosm of the larger, much-discussed publishing glut.
“The problem is over-publishing. Across the board, books are suffering,” concluded David Wilson, editorial director of Headline, Ashley Cole’s publisher. “They are not getting the shelf space in the shops. There are just too many celebrity books out there—and a lot of the major sports memoirs are basically celebrity books too. A few rise to the top, but you can never predict which they will be.”
Publishing commentator Danuta Kean defended the motives of the celebrity book craze with an agility more frequently seen in politicians’ press agents. Apparently, publishers released celebrity memoirs in order to show potential celebrity authors they they’re in the market for the next generation of celebrity books.
Maybe I’m slow, but this seems to me like showing other playground bullies that yes, you will hand over your lunch money without even requiring a thrashing. Congratulations, the precedent has been set for you acting like an imbecile! But Ms. Kean knows better than I, and she explains that “Publishers may make some dodgy judgements but they can do the maths and know how to operate in a tough market.” Well, that’s a load off of my mind.
I will not discuss what a shame it is that celebrities who have other not only viable but also voluminous sources of income (film, modeling, sports) have sucked away money from the publishing industry, execpt for in the first clause of this sentence. I will, however, mock their writing ability vicariously through The Independent’s streamlined summary of “the flops:”
Wayne Rooney: My Story So Far
DEAL: Â£4m for five books
SALES: 35,000 (published 27 July)
EXTRACT: “I was aware that my foot had landed between his legs… but it was an accident. I’ll go to my grave and still maintain it was a complete accident.”
The Blunkett Tapes
SALES: 1,000 (published 16 Oct)
EXTRACT: “The reader will make his or her judgement regarding the part I played in my own downfall - and also… regarding my contribution to making a difference.”
SALES: 4,000 (published 21 Sept)
EXTRACT: “My love for Arsenal was soured by what I see as neglect and resentment… The truth is, I felt that Arsenal had done jack-shit… to hold on to me.”
Living the Dream
SALES: 4,000 (published 26 Oct)
EXTRACT: “I paused at the top of the steps… Behind me was an eerie quietness, a deserted house, which for three weeks had been home.”
As an addendum to this discussion, I recently came across an absolutely fantastic post from “One Minute Book Reviews” (thanks to Critical Mass for pointing me to this excellent site). The blog’s author, Janice Harayda, was prompted by the inane prose of Mitch Albom’s For One More Day to run a selection through Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics, an optional part of the spelling and grammar check. With a false-start selection that judged Mr. Albom’s prose at a grade level of 2.8, she eventually determined that he writes at a third-grade level—3.4, to be precise. Her curiosity led her to check a comparable section from different authors, yeilding the following results:
Nora Ephron I Feel Bad About My Neck Grade 12.0
Alex Kuczynski Beauty Junkies Grade 10.3
James Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson Grade 8.6
Stephen King Liseyâ€™s Story Grade 8.3
Danielle Steel Toxic Bachelors Grade 4.8
Emily Arnold McCully An Outlaw Thanksgiving, a picture book for 4-to-8 year olds by a Caldecott Medalist Grade 4.3
Mitch Albom For One More Day Grade 3.4
I will leave you to peruse Harayda’s blog article yourself for her smart questions about these results, and also for an additional pay-off which I will hint at only by giving you the post’s title: “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?”
One Minute Book Reviews also tells you how to use Microsoft Word to determine a piece of writing’s grade level, so of course I needed to figure out how to apply this newfound knowledge. The answer was obvious: the Celebrity Book Deal Hall/Fall of Fame must be judged. Of course, I only had the tiny sections quoted by The Independent, as I am not among the few, the happy few, who contributed to the above sales. Had I a full 305 words, the answers might be different, but as they stand, they are somewhat suprising:
Wayne Rooney Wayne Rooney: My Story So Far: 5.9
David Blunkett The Blunkett Tapes: 12.0
Ashley Cole My Defence: 5.5
Chantelle Living the Dream: 4.3
Congratulations, Chantelle, you/your ghostwriter writes with more art than Mitch Albom.
November 8, 2006
French literary awards are nearly as corrupt as American elections!
…Albeit, from my standpoint, more entertaining and less depressing. On average. Depending upon the election. I confess I’m inclined to draw the parallel because today marks the shift in Depression Alert from red to orange, or possibly amber, and also because the French-American question is a particularly interesting of late. And no, I’m not referring to anyone who would have preferred I title the post ‘Corruption in the Freedom Book Awards. ‘
The first wave of scandal for the French literary establishment came last week, swelling from the seismic activity of two former book-prize panelists who alleged that juries were swayed by political favouritism, self-promotional commercial interests, or outright bribes.
First, Madeliene Chapsal, a member of the Prix Femina jury, composed solely of women, was expelled from her position for revealing the behind-the-scenes deliberations of the jury in her published memoirs. Suspicions were confirmed with the publication of the details from the diaries of Jacques Brenner, an author and member of a prize jury during the 1980s and 1990s. Le Figaro exposed Brenner’s hitherto-unseen descriptions of the systems of bribes and favours by which the jury operated. No call for response is needed from Brenner, who has the now-mixed fortune of having died in 2001, but the current juries were turned upside down by the accusations.
Both pieces tell the same story: French prize juries vote for publishers, not for authors, or even, far-fetched a proposal as it may seem, for individual books. A position on a panel is one typically ordained for life (with the notable exception of Ms. Chapsal); though the jury offers no monetary payment, panelists do benefit from invitations to conferences, funded overseas travel, and, most importantly, publicity and the assurance that prize-seeking publishing companies would be just thrilled to pick up their book.
Brenner, for example, specifically chronicles the way in which he was pushed towards awarding prizes to other authors under their auspices of his own publisher, Grasset. The system hinted by the fact that four major publishing companies who publish the works of three-quarters of the jury members also win two-thirds of the awards appears to be reality.
But perhaps the greatest scandal in the world of French book awards took place on Monday evening, when the prestigious Prix Goncourt was presented to an American. True, Jonathan Littell, the American in question, grew up in France, and his best-selling novel Les Bienveillantes (’The Kindly Ones’) is written in French, but it should come as no surprise that half of the French literary world views this a pollution of its culture. This is, after all, a country which has created a governmental agency to keep foreign words from invading the pure language, continually battling the fiendish new words that might sneak across the ocean/channel before a uniquely French version can be proposed. Who knows what impressionable French youth playing football might otherwise suffer, should they call a corner-kick ‘un cornair,’ as it was before the Academie Francaise intervened with the far more convenient ‘un coup de pied de coin.’
But the 370-year-old Academie Francaise also awarded its Grand Prix de Roman to Les Beinveillantes, thus making Jonathan Littell the first American in recent memory to win two major French literary prizes. Uproar surrounded the Academie’s decision, as a group of Academicians condemned the book for its sections of violence and obscenity, and a counter-group condemned the first group for approaching the dangerous territory of moral censorship.
After all, one could hardly expect Les Beinveillantes to be light, family-oriented fare; its narrator, Maximilian Aue, is an SS Officer, whose account of the Nazi’s campaign of murder in Eastern Europe is rendered all the more chilling for its detachment.
But Littell, now placed amongst the ranks of Goncourt laureates Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir, Pascal Quignard and Marguerite Duras, is trying not to place himself to the public view. Littell did not even appear at Monday’s ceremony, the capstone to the week of scandal. “He hopes his absence will not be misunderstood or, even less, be interpreted as disdain for the jury,” explained Littell’s publisher, Antoine Gallimard. “He has no need for publicity, both out of modesty and because he believes that literature is not part of show business, that what’s important is the book.”
What a shame. It would all have made such a good TV movie.
Thanks to Grumpy Old Bookman for pointing to the article about Bribes and the French Book Awards; read a nicely written contemplation of M. Littell’s recent win at MaÃ®tresse.
November 7, 2006
Or, Why Yes, That Looks Just Smashing with Your Latte!
How publishers begin moving beyond the bookstore, and, yes, beyond the Nora Roberts available at the supermarket checkout line, for retail space for books, and whether or not this is news
For those who have spent hours in front of the bookcase agonising over whether Ulysses or Remembrance of Things Past (or, for the more modern and edgy youth, In Search of Lost Time) goes better with your crisp fall outfit, publishers may have inadvertantly come to the rescue. Albeit they probably won’t help you decide between those particular titles; they most likely will have suggested one of their own recently published titles, via convenient product placement.
In order to combat flagging booksales, which are down by 2.6 percent compared to the corresponding period last year, and, I might suggest, in order to find a home for this fall’s influx of books, publishers are placing titles in other retail stores. According to the New York Times article, “Selling Literature to Go with Your Lifestyle,” “publishers are pushing their books into butcher shops, carwashes, cookware stores, cheese shops, even chi-chi clothing boutiques where high-end literary titles are used to amplify the elegant lifestyle they are attempting to project.”
Yes, for years, books have been stocked in supermarket check-out lines, in clothing stores like Urban Outfitters, and a few appropriate titles were often included in hardware stores or kitchen shops, but these alternative locations are accounting for an increasingly large portion of many publishers’ sales. â€œItâ€™s a way for the book business to stay alive,â€ explained Abby Hoffman, who serves as the vice president of sales and marketing for Chronicle Books in San Francisco. â€œAnyplace that sells merchandise is a place to sell books.â€ And indeed, Chronicle Books sells the majority of its 350 offbeat titles each year to places like high-end grocery stores, childrenâ€™s clothing stores and wineries.
Grocery stores? Of course. Some examples of what the the New York Times article dubbed “the oddest places” are, in fact, not so odd. In this respect, I agree with Galleycat, who I thank for pointing me to this story; in the wittlily titled piece, Like, wow, books can be sold in other places, Sarah says, “[T]his is a news story? Because duh, books *can* be sold in other places.” But wineries? (”Yes, we find that mysteries go best with our Pinot Noir. May I suggest some recent titles?”)
With appreciation for Galleycat’s well-executed mockery, there is some news in the story (shocking as that may be). It may not be quite the news that its author, Julie Bosman, has fashioned it to be, but the breadth of the current alternative retail market and the lengths that publishers, store managers, or both, are going to in order to promote booksales in these enviroments, are both new indications of the current market. Of course, as Galleycat points out, cheese shops can sell books, and they always could, but unless my Cheese-Shop Attendance has been too sporadic to make a resonable assessment, I don’t think they always have.
Penguin Group is selling books at cattle auctions, for example. Speaking for myself, that’s news, and perhaps moreso when you consider that it’s apparently a more successful marketing plan than Penguin’s production of a serialised novel. Locations such as farm-supply stores are ideal targets because there may not be a nearby vendor whose job it is to actually sell books. Barbara Oâ€™Shea, president of nontrade sales for Penguin, explained, “There is nobody selling books, so weâ€™ve gotten these places to sell books.”
The most striking bit of actual information is the coordination of books to merchandise, hence the title of this post and introductory persiflage. In Anthropologie, the black-and-white “A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005″ is paired with a sleek black ensemble, a pop-up book named “One Red Dot” corresponds to polka-dotted sneakers, and a yellow sweater is not complete without the book “The Persistence of Yellow.” Meanwhile, Time Warner Book Group changes the color and design of its book jackets to coordinate with a store’s merchandise or display, and HarperCollins has done some advance research to discover the shades that other stores are planning to decorate in for spring, so that they can apply the same delicate tints of “margarita and sangria” to their own book design. (”But my book is called ‘The Blue Cafe!’” “Tough! Blue isn’t in for spring!”)
Topical organization is logical—the cookbooks in Williams-Sonoma, or even the Jean-Paul Sartre with the skinny black pants—but I contend that with pure aesthetic correlation, the marketing campaign has reached a new level. Under this scheme, the clerk at the winery will say, “Yes, I recommend this book with a dark red cover to go with your Merlot.” It’s not innovative. It’s just sad.
But the fact is, the publishing companies are apparently doing very well with these “alternative retail” marketing spaces and color schemes, a fact illustrated in multiple examples. True, Starbucks’ placement of Mitch Albom’s For One More Day may have propelled it to the top of the lists, but it probably would have been a bestseller, anyway. But 4,500 of the 12,500 total copies of Ann Vokwein’s Arthur Avenue Cookbook were sold through Mike’s Deli in the Bronx.
And at Simon & Schuster, these “special market sales” have grown by 50 percent in the last four years. “The publisher now has a responsibility to put books in front of more eyeballs,” said Jack Ramanos, the president and chief executive of the publishing company. “The market was always there, but I donâ€™t know that most publishers were as aggressive about trying to develop it 10 years ago as they are today.”
Is it news? I offer the closing paragraph of Julie Bosman’s NY Times piece:
â€œYou walk into Restoration Hardware and you want the couch and the vase and the nightstand, and then you want the two books that are on the nightstand,â€ Ms. Rosen said. â€œThe books complete the story.â€
Putting aside the fact that “Ms. Rosen” is not, as far as I can tell, elsewhere identified within the piece (if I’ve missed it somewhere, please point it out), let me respectfully disagree with the honourable members from Galleycat and PersonaNonData (whose nice thoughts on the piece I came across halfway through this post), and vote that yes, it is news. However, I would not file it under “Innovative and Exciting New Marketing Ideas” so much as “Evidence That the Second Coming is at Hand, or, at Least, We Are Propelling Towards a Kind of Cultural Doom.”
The Glass-Half-Full side of Thomasina ventures to assert, however, that unless somebody buys “One Red Dot” to go with their sneakers, there will be no one to publish all the other books. Including, of course, my color-coordinated copies of Ulysses.
A couple of excellent responses to this article appear in The Phoenix. It wins extra points for saying the article “chills to the bone.” I concur. The Publisher’s Marketplace piece sums up nicely: “What if the merchandise looks like crap? Should the books blend with that, too?”
November 3, 2006
Lest our admiration for Kiran Desai become tinged with some unnattractive jealousy, consider that it’s not easy being the youngest woman to ever win the Man Booker Prize, whose shortlist I discussed in an earlier post. Bring to mind the detractions of fame. When you become a famous film star, you never know when someone is going to leap out of the rubbish bin to snap a photo of you bending over to organise the recycleables with your hairstyle resembling a nest of no less than three weasels, and when you create literary history, the town you have immortalised may suddenly threaten to burn your book as a show of concern.
Desai won the Man Booker Prize for her second novel The Inheritance of Loss whilst I was away. Desai is following in the tradition of her mother, Anita Desai, thrice shortlisted for the Prize. (And she’s not the only one: the Man Booker comittee also followed in the ‘tradition’ of this year, staging a double-upset by not shortlisting the top people expected to win, and then not giving the Prize to the shortlisted people expected to win, either.) Kiran thanked her mother, to whom the book is dedicated, during her acceptance speech, saying, “To my mother, I owe a debt so profound and so great that this book feels as much hers as it does mine. It was written… in her wisdom and kindness, in cold winters in her house when I was in pieces. I really owe her this book so enormously. A minute isnâ€™t enough to convey it.”
In addition, the book is very much a product of the younger Desai’s cross-contintal life. Born in India in 1971, she went to school in Delhi and Kalimpong before moving to England at the age of 14 for schooling. Soon thereafter, she moved to the United States, attending Bennington College and studying creative writing at Columbia University. She now lives in the U.S., but spends part of the year in India; the author revealed that she wrote “the Indian bits” of The Inheritance of Loss in India, so that she “wouldn’t be too distanced from it.”
The novel itself, as all of this suggests, oscillates between Kalimpong, in the northeast of India, where orphan Sai encounters the movement for Nepalese independence while living with her embittered grandfather, and New York, where the son of the cook who serves Sai and her grandfather is struggling to find work as an illegal immigrant. Parallels between Desai’s life and that of her teenage heroine emerge: both have grandfathers who moved from poverty in Gujarat to Cambridge University; both attended a convent school in a Himalayan town. Desai’s aunt had a house in Kalimpong that served as in inspiration.
But apparently, its autobiographical resonance is precisely why, in the opinion of some, it must become kindling. “It is a one-sided account that tells you about [Desai's] fears about Kalimpong. The central character Sai is obviously a self-portrait and you can feel her estrangement from this dark, ominous place where Nepalese are just transient interlopers in the landscape,” said Anmole Prasad, a local lawyer.
The main argument and book-burning movement, which has been apparently circulating on that hotbed of rationality and clearsightedness the Internet Forum (some self-deprecation is included in that statement), is that Desai portrays the characters of Nepalese descent in an unsympathetic light. “Condescending statements” about Nepalese Indians apparently present these characters as “petty criminals, too stupid to do anything but work as labourers,” as reported by the Guardian.
The Nepalese rebellion, seen through the lens of the relationship between Sai and her Indo-Nepali tutor, is described in the book as the result of being treated “like the minority in a place where they were the majority”—which sounds like a reasonably sympathetic assessment of the town’s predominantly Nepalese residents. But others are complaining that the bloodshed of the rebellion is not sufficiently emphasized, and others are complaining, apparently, because you should only be allowed to write about things which you have experienced from the inside. “Really the book is just an outsider’s view of Kalimpong and the events that took place here,” said Bharat Mani Pradhan, a social worker in Kalimpong, dismissing the validity of the book.
Correct me if I’m misreading this: apparently, half of those angered by her portrayal of the Nepalese Indians object because it’s clearly autobiographical, and the other half are annoyed because it has no personal connection. On the other hand, as I have pointed out in similar situations, one also has to doubt the sanity of anyone who would propose the burning of a book, that he, ostensibly, purchased. The gesture seems to say to me, “Take THAT! And take your tiny but compiling royalty while you’re at it!” It’s hardly a cost-effective fuel, not to mention usage of time. As Penguin, the publisher of The Inheritance of Loss, waves off the complaints as “individual’s opinions,” and “not an issue for us or Ms. Desai,” defending the novel as “pure fiction,” it seems that the only solid conclusion one can make is that people rather enjoy getting annoyed about things.
After all, Kiran Desai is not following in her mother’s footsteps alone. At 35 years old, she outsed the former Youngest Female Booker Prize Recipient, Arundhati Roy, who won in 1997 for The God Of Small Things at the decripit old age of 36. The God of Small Things created a similar hue and cry amongst the residents and ruling communist party of her home town in Kerala, a state in southern India. Perhaps it is only an indication that you’ve written a good book.
Thanks to the admirable Booksquare, through whom I found the Guardian article; visit a thriving discussion of Desai’s Booker Prize win at SepiaMutiny; Modal Minority has a fantastic point about the book brouhaha that is even more artfully balanced than the lovely piece to which it responds—and furthermore wins my Undying Admiration for quoting Yeats.