Out of the many, many comments we received in response to our Talk Back Tuesday question regarding Don Imus's future viability as a promoter of books (now, it seems, moot), my favorite has to be the one from a bookseller in North Carolina who seemed surprised we were asking the question in the first place. Not once in his 15 years of bookselling did anyone come into his store and say, "I just heard about this book on Don Imus." So, just how important was Imus to book promotion anyway?
The answer, in New York, at least, for some authors and publishers, is "a lot." Imus may not ever have wielded Oprah's or Jon Stewart's influence, but for nonfiction writers, primarily, especially those involved in business or politics or media—Imusian praise could sell books. And if those authors were male and of a certain age, and their books appealed to males of that certain age, he could absolutely "make" those titles. Just ask Tony Hendra, whose Father Joe got an enormous boost from Imus's regular and passionate praise on his program in 2004; the book went on to sell over 150,000 copies (according to Nielsen BookScan) in its first few months, before an accusation of sexual abuse from Hendra's daughter slowed sales. (In the what-goes-around-comes-around department, it's worth noting that when that scandal broke, Imus did not speak up in defense of the man he'd invited on his show and praised so lavishly. I know, because I tried hard, at the time, to reach him for comment.)
Obviously, there were other factors that worked to make this and other titles a success. But having such an unlikely book-touter as a hard-bitten recovering alcoholic shock jock helped to increase book awareness in a demographic that has been a tough one for publishers to crack: the one full of educated, cranky, middle-aged white guys who might be a bit more like Imus than it is now fashionable to admit. Who will reach this difficult demographic now?
Still, what strikes me about this situation is that it demonstrates all too clearly how dependent the publishing business has become on celebrity endorsements. It's easy to see why we've done it; for one thing, in this era of traditional-book-coverage shrinkage, it often works. Remember the hue and cry when Oprah canceled her book club in the wake of the Franzen fracas? You would have thought we should just have closed down the book business altogether. But guess what? We all lived to publish another day—and now Oprah's club is back and, in the meantime, Jon Stewart has emerged as a powerful force in book land.
What will publishing do now, without Imus? Well, we'll scramble, of course, and we'll worry and we'll hope. And yes, of course, we'll fall in love with the next unlikely pitchmeister, if he's good at what he does. But meanwhile, we'd best not forget about all the old (and new) ways of promoting books, because, as countless politicians and corporations have learned, relying so much on a single celebrity can be—duh—tricky. What's that expression: spread the risk? For publishing in the age of celebrity means not putting the industry's fate so squarely on the shoulders of one whose values and actions are questionable.
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