Celebrity Children’s Book Authors and the Publishers Who Love Them, Part 3

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.

2 Responses

  1. I agree with you 100%. Even in screen­writ­ing though, the writ­ers every lit­tle cred­it, espe­cial­ly new­bies. THANK you for say­ing so suc­cinct­ly what we all know and feel!

  2. Nik­ki, I enjoyed read­ing your “rant” about celebri­ty authors, say­ing many of the things that so many of us chil­dren’s book authors wish we had the guts to say in a pub­lic forum. I came to writ­ing chil­dren’s books after ten years as a pro­fes­sion­al sto­ry­teller see­ing between 75,000 to 100,000 chil­dren a year. I have been pas­sion­ate about the craft all my life, since I was a lit­tle girl and know my chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. I am a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of SCBWI and have been to every major library and edu­ca­tion con­fer­ence. I work heav­i­ly in edu­ca­tion, cre­ate study guides and book activ­i­ties for my books, and cor­re­late my work with state and nation­al edu­ca­tion bench­marks and stan­dards. I work my a** off to ensure that my read­ers receive the very best I have to offer. 

    But I don’t con­cern myself with the celebri­ty authors any­more because I know that if their books are of infe­ri­or qual­i­ty, they will not last. They will not make school read­ing lists, become AR books, or win state and young read­er’s choice awards. They will sell a lot in the begin­ning but they will fade. They always do. The hall­mark of good chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture is this: the “Again Fac­tor,” the books that are opened again and again and again by par­ents, teach­ers, librar­i­ans, and yes, our read­ers — the chil­dren both young and young adult. 

    The celebri­ties will come and go but com­mit­ted chil­dren’s book authors like you, who write for the right rea­sons, will remain.

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