There’s been a lot of talk about celebrity books in the media lately, since the list of World Book Day 2018 titles was announced. As someone who has been ghost-writing books, celeb and otherwise, for almost ten years, I feel honour-bound to weigh in. Knowledge is power, after all. SO.
Professional writers aren’t in the business of pushing ourselves forward, but of writing good stories. You want to get famous? Audition for X-Factor. You want to make up stuff for the fun of making up stuff, because you can’t help inventing worlds, characters, plots? Here’s how it works.
Your agent says, ‘Would you like to pitch for this celebrity book? Here is the brief.’ You give it a go. You get the job. You might meet the celebrity, you might not. The celebrity might want to be involved in the writing process or they might not. You get paid a reasonable advance, which means you keep earning if the book sells well, or a reasonable flat fee, which means you don’t. You work hard on bringing the characters and situations to life. You talk to your editor and redraft as many times as required. The celebrity approves what you have written, or changes it, or adds to it. The book comes out and you probably don’t get invited to the launch. The celebrity may work hard to promote it, or they may not. You retweet everything the celebrity says about the book. You enjoy the press coverage. You have written the best book you can with the material you have been given. The rest is out of your hands.
Not long ago, I ghost-wrote two books with the singer and model Tallia Storm, called POP GIRL and POP GIRL: SIGNED WITH A KISS. Tallia was discovered by Elton John aged 13, when she approached David Furnish at a hotel with a demo CD. Elton called her and she opened his gig in Glasgow. Thirteen years old. You couldn’t make it up. But you COULD turn it into wish-fulfilment fiction. Why wouldn’t you? The characters were strong, the jokes were fun. The storylines were full of Moments. I was proud of them. The editors, designers and production teams were proud of them too.
Both books received a one-star review on Amazon, followed by the word ‘ghostwritten’. As if all those people involved in the process were phantoms. No effort expended. No pride taken. The books had apparated with the click of celeb fingers and were worth no one’s time. For the second book, POP GIRL: SIGNED WITH A KISS, the review was posted before the book had even been published. That feels like spite to me. If you read and disliked the books, fine. But I’m prepared to bet a large cheese sandwich that you would have enjoyed them if you’d allowed yourself to read them.
This kind of backlash began with Zoella’s ghost-written GIRL ONLINE in 2014. Readers felt that neither the celebrity nor the publisher was being honest with them. The dishonesty served no one’s interest. Writers like me were caught in the shadows, wondering how much to say about the novel they were wrestling with which wasn’t supposed to be their novel. Publishers are starting to rectify this now, and not before time.
Michael Rosen once made the point that we get too hung up on who wrote books instead of considering them a team effort. The writers tend to put in more work than everyone else, on the whole, but I understand what he’s getting at. A book is a product, like it or not. Like face cream, socks or staplers, it requires a team to take it from an amorphous idea to a physical, saleable item. Having both edited and written books, I understand the time and effort that goes into them. A book is not just a name on a cover. It is much more.
That said, I do have some issues with celebrity publishing. When books are rushed through because a celebrity is ‘hot’, knocking other books off the schedule and leaving too little time to wrangle a poor jumble of ideas into a coherent book which won’t leave said celebrity blushing. When review space is hogged by famous faces. When publishers spell the ghost-writer’s name wrong (you know who you are). When celebrities pretend to have written the books. When writers are asked to appear at festivals for free as if it were a privilege, while celebrities are courted. When celebrities take the money and run, failing to promote the books that everyone has worked so hard to produce on their behalf. When professional writers work like stink on school visits, or to protest library closures, or to build literacy awareness, only to be swept aside on a tidal wave of veneered teeth and platitudes about journeys. When celebrities make it look easy to write a children’s book and perpetuate the myth that anyone can do it. I don’t like any of these things.
The World Book Day 2018 titles are all written by the celebrities themselves, not by writers like me. They have been picked by people in the industry who know the difference between decent books and famous-name books. I hope that they will be judged as all books should be judged: not by the cover or the name, but by the content. I hope their authors enjoy the fun of publication, but keep in mind that this is a craft and not a hobby. I hope they squeeze in a few school visits, and support libraries, and do what they can to promote literacy beyond that one day in March 2018.
I hope, in short, that they join in.