What about the little guy?

A trend is surfacing in cartoon movies, like in the forthcoming Bolt, with John Travolta, Miley Cyrus and Malcolm McDowell. Celebrities do all the important voices. See the Toy Story movies. Or…any of them, really.

It’s the same in the publishing world. If you’re “somebody,” it seems like you can get a book published on any topic you like. The Estefans have a cookbook. Madonna and her English Roses. Jenna Bush. Even Adrienne Barbeau (remember her?) has a novel on vampires coming out this fall.

Do I sound bitter? I suppose I am. I’ve been trying to get published for years and find it’s a steep uphill climb, while some other practically have publishers falling over themselves to get a celeb’s name on a contract. But are those contracts worth it?

Not for Schuster Inc. who paid Foxy Brown $75,000 in 2005 to deliver an autobiography called “Broken Silence” by February 2006; and Lil’ Kim $40,000 in 2003 for a novel due June 2004. Neither woman came through with the goods, and now Schuster is suing them for non-performance.

It’s also widely acknowledged that many of these celeb books aren’t even written by the person whose name is on them, but are drafted by ghostwriters. Stephanie Merritt, in the UK’s Guardian, writes this:

The art of presenting the celebrity novel was badly misjudged by the publisher William Heinemann in 1994 when it signed up supermodel Naomi Campbell for a glitzy novel about the fashion industry. Caroline Upcher, then an editor at Heinemann and also a novelist in her own right, was contracted to write Swan… “The idea was to buy the name,” says Upcher, who now lives in the US, where she runs an online editorial service for first-time authors. “It was announced that this novel would happen and that I would write it…” Upcher had almost no input from Campbell except to make clear that she didn’t want the story to bear any resemblance to her own life… “There was no friction because I didn’t need her,” Upcher recalls. “I just did my research and got on with it. The only time I would contact her would be to get access to parts of the fashion world, to use her name for research.”

Neither was there any attempt to capture the celebrity’s “voice” in order to bolster the make-believe, Upcher says. “It wasn’t really even ghosting, it was just another novel by me but with someone else’s name on the cover.”

Halfway through the writing process, though, the publisher’s official line changed and suddenly Campbell was being promoted as the author. “I was written out of the picture,” Upcher says. “It didn’t worry me one way or the other but that’s where the problem came, because everybody knew it was me but we all then had to pretend otherwise… poor Naomi came off worse because she was being slammed for something she hadn’t really wanted in the first place.”

The idea of Campbell lending her name to a novel was ahead of its time, but its failure seems very obviously linked to a perception that she tried to fool people by pretending to talents she didn’t have.

So if these people don’t have talents, should publishers really be courting them? What about the people out here who want their own shot at the brass ring? Like those regular guys who used to be able to make a buck voicing cartoon characters even if their faces weren’t handsome enough to be shown on a movie screen?

At a writers’ conference this spring, one of the instructors shared with us that the same thing is happening with James Patterson and several other huge-name writers: a ghost writer works with them to get those novels turned out–they do most of the writing, but the big guy’s name goes on the front and sells the books.

The publishing business is changing, everyone agrees about that, with the focus always more and more on the profit line. Hollywood, too, apparently, prefers stars they know will bring in a stack of bills rather than giving newbies a shot. What’s wrong with looking outside the spotlight and giving someone new a chance?


3 thoughts on “What about the little guy?

  1. Oooh, this frosts me. First, the James Patterson books – I used to be a big fan, and then I realized they weren’t as well-written as they used to be, and I started not to like them. And I realized it’s because they’re using a second writer, and it really makes me mad.

    Also, the celebrity thing makes me cranky too. So many of them are so poorly written and you know the book wouldn’t have made it in the door if it weren’t for the famous name attached to it.

    So I’m with you, sister! Boycott the famous people books!

  2. Unfortunately, the bottom line is it, and the public wants what is out there. (Stupid public!) If the public didn’t buy all that crap, they wouldn’t use it, but they lap it up like a dog laps water after a long run on a hot day.

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