How Celebrities Saved, Then Killed, the Book Trade: The London Book Fair and Our Spring Books Special Inspired Nicholas Clee, the Former Editor of the Bookseller, to Reflect on the Publishing Industry's Unhealthy Obsession with Fame

Article excerpt

The Galaxy British Book Awards dinner, which takes place at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane each spring, is not an event for the high-minded. Presented by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, it welcomes to the stage a series of celebrities not best known for their literary credentials, but who are of far greater appeal to the attending cameras than are the full-time authors, representatives of a drabber world. Jordan rubs shoulders with Ian McEwan, Geri Halliwell with Doris Lessing. It is good fun, usually. But this year the fun curdled somewhat.

We gave a big round of applause to Ant and Dec. They were working on a memoir. Here was Jo Brand. She has written a couple of novels, and this autumn will bring out her autobiography. So will Jack Dee. Next up was Dara O'Briain. He ... but you follow the pattern. As book-writing comedian succeeded book-writing comedian, an uneasy sense pervaded the room that the industry's reliance on these people to provide Christmas bounty was depressingly unoriginal, and quite likely to end in failure. Then we looked at Richard and Judy, doing their stuff for their tiny audience on the digital channel Watch. For how much longer would they continue to promote the sales of books in their millions?

The evening brings together the phenomena that have provided most of the bounty for the general book industry in the past few years. Ever since the supermarkets, attracted by the licence to discount following the abandonment of price maintenance on books in the 1990s, got heavily involved in bookselling, celebrity memoirs have been big business. Books by the likes of David Beckham, Peter Kay and Russell Brand have sold in their millions, and the top ten hardbacks of 2008 included the memoirs of Paul O'Grady, Dawn French, Julie Walters and Michael Parkinson. (The list also featured three TV chefs: Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson.)

Such has been the influence of Richard and Judy that their producer, Amanda Ross of Cactus TV, has been named the most powerful person in UK publishing. Kate Mosse, Victoria Hislop, Jodi Picoult and Jed Rubenfeld are among those who have come from nowhere to top the charts as a result of selection for the Richard and Judy Book Club, and even established authors, such as William Boyd, have enjoyed enhanced success thanks to the duo's patronage. In 2008, R&J Book Club titles accounted for 8 per cent of all paperback fiction sales (as measured by Nielsen BookScan's Top 5,000 chart).

However, there are signs that the heyday of the celebrity book, and of Richard and Judy, may be over--and if it is, where will the book trade be? Publishers are banking on the celebs again this autumn, but have serious worries that this genre will play less well in credit-crunch Britain. Richard and Judy selections seemed to be as prominent as ever in the charts this spring, but turned out to have sold, according to an analysis in the Bookseller magazine, about a third fewer copies than the spring 2008 selections. Booksellers continue to back the R&J "brand", which they badly need to help them shift copies.

However, with the duo languishing on a little-watched digital channel, there must be doubts about whether the brand can retain its potency. Only the news, announced at the London Book Fair on 20 April, that Dan Brown had broken cover to complete The Lost Symbol, a sequel to his megaselling The Da Vinci Code, offers the certain promise of blockbusting sales.

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Some people will welcome these developments. The industry has cultivated an unhealthy obsession with celebrities, they argue, to the detriment of proper books and authors. Richard and Judy may have created careers and selected some excellent books, but they have gained too much influence. …