There’s not much point in discussing celebrity children’s books without discussing the money piece of the issue.
Let’s face it, publishers, who are the really guilty parties in all this, are all about the bottom line. This was less true when I came into the market than it is today. Children’s publishers, big and small, used to be primarily about creating quality literature for young readers. In that model, the school and library markets were king. Today, publishing has swung away from that. Now it’s about bottom lines, branding, searching for the next blockbuster, and replacing English lit graduates with MBAs. Yes, there are small publishers still committed to producing quality work for children, but they are fewer in number. In today’s model, mega-publishing groups decide on whether or not to keep a book in print based on sales and warehouse space. Forget backlist. Their eyes are on what’s new, what’s hot, and what’s not goes the way of the dinosaur.
In this new market, the prospect of having a celebrity book on their list is very attractive. A celebrity author brings with him a built-in marketing machine. News outlets are eager to cover any and everything a celebrity does. Daytime and late night talk shows jump on board to parade them out, and publishers are greedy for projects that can generate that kind of publicity. Meanwhile, the average children’s book author has no prayer of competing with that. Never mind that our work actually deserves such attention. Sigh…
There are, of course, other inequities that crop up where celebrity authors are concerned. I once listened to an editor bemoaning the difficulty of trying to edit a celebrity book, often having to do the rewrites herself. She longed for the days I was one of her authors. “No problem,” I said. “Just pay me what you’re paying HER, and I’ll be happy to give you another of my manuscripts to work on.” Well, as you might imagine, that was the end of that conversation.
The sad fact is that celebrities garner figures that most authors can only dream of. And yes, my cup of envy runneth over. But my dismay over this status quo is not just an issue of sour grapes. Every time one of these celebrity books bombs, every other author on the list suffers too because the marketing dollars invested in promoting the star book meant a thinner slice of the marketing pie for the rest of us. If the celebrity book succeeds, the celebrity and the publishers do well. If, however, the celebrity book fails, we all feel the pinch come time for our next contract negotiation because there’s less money in the coffers to acquire new manuscripts, let alone to promote them.
There’s another aspect of the money issue that irks me. When I started in this business, I had to accept the low advance of a first-time author. Over time, as I created a track record, my advances grew, as they should. Now, after having honed my craft for 30+ years, winning a respectable number of awards along the way, I have to bite my tongue when some celebrity steps off of the silver screen and is handed a check for at lest ten times what I’m paid, and for inferior work, at that! Sorry, but this moves me out of my happy place. There. I’ve said it.
Finally, there’s the Oprah Factor. Yes, you’ve heard of it. Every time I have a new book released, someone says to me, “You need to go on Oprah,” or “Oprah will call you one of these days. You just wait,” to which I respond, “Yes, well…” And I let my voice trail off.
As most of us know, Oprah does not promote children’s book or young adult authors, unless they are celebrities, or better yet, celebrity friends. The rest of us need not apply.
I get that Oprah’s unfamiliar with the children’s market rank and file, or even the “stars” of the field. Still, how about starting with Newbery winners? Coretta Scott King winners? Caldecott winners? Printz winners? I’m just saying.
I know I’m just whistling Dixie, but a girl can dream, right?
I keep hoping the celebrity children’s book phase will run its course. Now, I’m not so sure. I would say wake me up when it’s over, but I don’t feel like sleeping that long.