If celebrity is currency, as rock star and activist Bono says, then publishers need to keep a close eye on its fluctuating exchange rate. Succeeding with a “name” book involves managing a complex mix of factors, including popularity, public relations savvy, and serendipity.
While celebrities bring their own fan base to a publisher, that can come at the price of a high advance, which in turn likely means a larger initial print run. “The investment is larger, which increases the financial risk,” for such books, says Jan Long Harris, publisher at Tyndale House, “but the upside potential is greater as well.”
Tyndale has seen great success with sports-themed celebrity books—probably the strongest vein in the category—since Tony Dungy’s Quiet Strength debuted in 2008, going on to sell over a million copies. Coauthor Nathan Whitaker tells PW he thinks sports books are especially popular because they celebrate character and the determination to overcome.
And sports are ubiquitous. From the age of five or six “most kids are involved” in some program, notes Robert Walker, president of Core Media Group; added to that are the enthusiastic fans of professional teams and players. Core Media partnered with Worthy Publishing for Michael Vick’s 2012 release, Finally Free. The book about the NFL player’s jail time for his involvement in dog fighting and subsequent redemption illustrated that no publicity is bad. Social media criticism of Vick prompted cancellation of a spring signing tour over security concerns, but Walker says that the media attention led to a subsequent spike in online sales.
Too Much Publicity?
Still, there is such a thing as too much PR. “You can get more publicity for these kinds of books than others, but sometimes that satisfies the readers’ curiosity,” notes Rolf Zettersten, publisher at FaithWords. “They read about it in People magazine or on some Christian Web site and say, ‘Well, now I know everything I’m interested to know.’ It can backfire.”
Potential oversell like this should be addressed ahead of time, according to Matt Baugher, senior v-p and publisher at Thomas Nelson. “We have to be more diligent with these individuals than perhaps other authors, so that when they are on the morning shows they are not giving away too much of the story. We encourage them to build intrigue instead.” For Baugher, celebrity titles are similar to memoirs in that “they tend to be either very successful or they are only very moderately successful. I don’t see a lot of middle ground.” Where the two categories diverge, he notes, is that sales of memoirs tend to build over time, but for celebrity books “pretty much everyone is looking at the first couple of months and after that it kind of settles to whatever level.”
Part of the reason for the shorter life of such books is the endless news cycle that rapidly churns through stories. That makes event-driven celebrity books especially tough. Publishers considering “ripped from the headlines” books have to ask: will anyone remember this event in a year? And is this really a book or just a magazine article?
Though celebrity books often reveal past personal issues and problems, publishers also need to be on guard for unexpected scandals that could torpedo a release. “That’s why most contracts have a moral turpitude clause in them, so if there is something that the author has done that changes their reputation in the marketplace, the publisher has the right to cancel the contract,” notes Zettersten. “I don’t think I have ever had to exercise that prerogative.”
Quality Is Crucial
Many publishers agree that the quality of celebrity books has improved because of market pressures. “There was a time when some Christian sports books basically said, ‘Hey, I am a Christian too, isn’t that cool?’ ” says Steven Lawson, a former Regal Books editor and collaborator on many celebrity titles. That’s not enough anymore. “There has to be some depth to it, more than a singular event,” says FaithWords’ Zettersten. Adds David Moberg, senior v-p, president, and group publisher at HarperCollins Christian Publishing, today “you can find something out in five minutes. If someone is going to spend money and time on a book-length narrative, there has to be something really special.”
This higher standard helps offset some of the concerns about unexpected skeletons emerging, as publishers weigh character as well as story. “We spend a lot of time looking at the strength of the story and the strength of what the person is trying to say,” says Baugher. “I want that celebrity to be likable and to be somebody that is trusted.”
While celebrity books typically have a shorter shelf life, it can be longer if there is something that keeps the person in the public eye, like a television series with ongoing new content. Music-related titles are widely considered to be among the hardest celebrity books to make work, possibly because musicians often want to write about the meaning behind their songs, thinks Lawson. “Part of the power of a song is the way it can mean something different to each listener”; explaining too much can “take away from the enchantment and allure of a song,” he says.
Reflecting on his company’s experience with the Vick book—declining to give sales figures, but saying the canceled tour had little impact because it was several months after release—Dennis Disney, Worthy Publishing’s v-p of marketing, highlighted another issue for publishers. “The biggest challenge we had was in coordinating his upfront national book media with his obligations to the Philadelphia Eagles,” he says.
And if prior commitments aren’t an obstacle to promotions, money can be. Jonathan Merkh, publisher at Howard Books, recalls the agent for a musician who had written a book dismissing a request for a book-signing appearance because he said his client could earn seven figures performing for the same amount of time.
Bumped by the News
Even when everything seems to be aligned for a perfect release, there’s always the chance that a breaking major news story will divert attention. “A big event like 9/11 can wipe you off the market,” says Dave Lewis, senior v-p and director of marketing at Baker Publishing Group. Or an injury can sideline an athlete, or actors can see their latest movie tank or television series get canceled, adds Lawson.
At the end of the day, even the best planning leaves the book’s fate in the hands of what leading agent Steve Laube calls “the fickle nature of the consuming public.” That might explain how The Ear of the Heart has been an unexpected success for Ignatius Press since its release in May. The company’s marketing director, Anthony Ryan, says that Dolores Hart’s story of turning her back on a bright Hollywood career half a century ago—she starred alongside Elvis Presley and Anthony Quinn—to enter a contemplative monastery resonates with people in part because “she had no desire to be famous.” Nor did Ignatius have an interest in celebrity books per se, says Ryan: “What we are interested in is great titles.”