Monday 7 November 2022

The Broken Model, by Dawn Finch

I have on many occasions been outspoken about my belief that the cult of celebrity authors in the world of children’s publishing is harmful. I have explained why I think the current obsession with offering celebrities deals for publishing children’s books is bad for readers and for anyone purchasing books for young people. Now I want to explain why it is bad for authors and the industry as a whole.

It can not have escaped anyone’s attention that the supermarket and mainstream bookshop shelves are increasingly full of books “written” by celebrities. I use the word “written” in quotation marks because this is not an article about the relative merits of flaws of these books (and I have no desire to demean the work of my colleagues who are ghost writers). I'm also leaving aside the many excellent writers of comedy and tv who have made a professional transition into writing for young people. This article is about how the messy bun-fight for books by random celeb names and how it is hurting the children’s book industry as a whole.

Let me explain. To secure the “writing” of a celebrity the publisher offers an advance – an advance payment offered against future sales of the book. These advances are shrouded in secrecy, but it is safe to say that in the world of children’s authors’ incomes these celeb advances would be described as super-massive. The celeb advances that I know of are twenty or thirty times the rate that regular authors are getting, and many are way way more. Publishing houses are, of course, just another business at heart and they have a product that they need to sell and it is within their business interests to make that advance back. To make the advance back they need to sell as many copies of the celeb book as quickly as possible after publication. 

There are many ways to sell a book but the number one way of making sure you have lots of pre-orders and sales is to have maximum visibility. You can have the best book in the world with the finest and most beautiful illustrations and cover but if no one knows that book exists then no one will buy it. Children are not swayed by the latest chef or DJ publishing a book - in fact they literally could not care less. This means the marketing people have to sell not to children, but the adults - the holders of the purse strings. Publishers know this and that is why it’s not enough to just have a press release or a few tweets with the celeb’s book, you have to go all out. What you need to claw back a super-massive advance is a high-profile advertising campaign. You need huge posters on public transport, guest spots on tv shows, glossy ads in magazines, and you need to buy visible shelf space and to buy on to award lists – basically you need to throw a shed load more money at the book to make money back on the book. That's a big gamble.

I often hear people claim that celebrity high-profile books are good for the industry because they “get kids reading” and they have a “trickle-down” effect. I absolutely do not believe that and over the last three decades working with children’s books I have seen zero evidence of this.  I fail to see how the fact that a celeb author who has cost the publisher this super-massive advance and now also dominates their marketing budget can be of any benefit to any author other than the celeb themselves. Frankly I’m not convinced that most of these super-massive advances earn out at all. Evidence for this is that the publishing industry constantly scoping around for the next celeb to gamble on and to repeat this broken model over and over again.

It breaks my heart that month after month, year after year, I see the most extraordinary books for young readers fail to get the attention they deserve. There are some outstanding books published by authors of true talent, authenticity, originality and skill and yet these will probably never find their way into the hands of your children. The cold fact is that if you pass a supermarket or post office shelf, or if you’re on the underground, or switch your telly on to a tea time chat show you are only ever going to see the same books by the same small pool of celebrity authors. 

When celebs started to see children’s books as a kind of easy cash-cow every reader, children’s author, and book buyer lost something. What we lost was choice and variety and in its place we have an industry that is drifting ever closer to being a glossy and homogenised pastiche of what it should be. Instead of shelves full of limitless variety we have an industry becoming dependent on the soulless repetition of this super-massive celeb advance + intense claw back broken model.

There are still those who claim that the reason professional authors protest about the cult of celebrity authors is jealousy, but that’s not the case with the authors I know. Yes, of course they’d like a more level playing field and would like a fair share of the money and the marketing budgets, but it’s far more than that. They can see how this intense focus on celebs limits not only their opportunity to create and write but also limits choice for young readers as the celebs muscle in on all the available shelf space.

Authors want the industry to be better, and to do better. They write for children because they believe in what they do, and because they want children to have access to a wide range of books from all walks of life and expressing all voices. They want children to have the very thing that inspired them to become writers in the first place in that they want them to stumble across an extraordinary book that speaks to them and inspires them and lives in their hearts for the rest of their lives.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Dawn Finch (aka Dawn McLachlan) is an author, poet and former children's librarian with 30 yrs experience working with children's books and reading. She is a former chair of the Society of Authors Children's Writers and Illustrators Group, and a former President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals


Nick Garlick said...

I'll admit to being jealous, but what really gets me down about these books is the - to me, at least - implicit assumption that writing a book for children is now just another string in a celeb's bow, and that they can be knocked off in the 'down time' between movies or TV shows.

Paul May said...

I also really dislike the way almost everyone in the business colludes in the fiction that the celebrities actually write these books. Even reviewers review the books as though the celebrities had actually written them. Great post, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Any recommendations for an 8 year old please 🙏

Anonymous said...

Any recommendations for an 8 year old girl please 🙏 She has been enjoying the unicorn Pearl series.

Polly said...

Speaking as a children's librarian, they don't go out much when we buy them, unless they're actually decent books (and there are some). So we quite often don't buy them. Unless they're by hockey players, because I'm in Canada, and although I have no interest in hockey, I'm definitely outvoted, even by fellow staff!

Lynne Benton said...

Very well said, Dawn!