The cult of celebrity and young fiction

Sam Huckstep discusses the boom in children's fiction by celebrities and debates whether it's actually a good thing for the genre.

Illustration by John Tenniel

If you visit the children’s section in almost every bookshop now, you will be confronted by a rather surprising phenomenon. Leaping out again and again from the spines of those thin and brightly-coloured volumes will be names that you recognise.

There is Stephen Hawking, famous nigh-on everywhere for his thoughts on, um, nigh-on everything; Barack Obama, who needs no introduction — and alongside them, Frank Lampard, the ex-England footballer; Chris Hoy, the Olympic cyclist; Ricky Gervais, the comedian; even actress and model Cara Delevingne. That is a diverse group of professionals, well-known for many things — but not, of course, for writing children’s books.

That is not to say that they cannot write. David Walliams, the British comedian, has written a series of children’s books that have now sold more than £11 million worth since they were published just a few years ago, evidence that he is considered at the very least a writer of enjoyable fiction.

But can they write in a style equal to those who make it their life’s work to write? Would they have been given their advances (which are in some cases very large indeed) if they were not already so well-known? The answer to that, naturally, is — no, they would not.

Publishing, like every industry, must consider the bottom line. It is a thin and treacherous line. Several long-standing children’s publishing houses closed over the summer. The fact is that celebrities are a safe bet, or at least as close to a safe bet as one can find in a business that is relatively devoid of both safe bets and of people who are any good at spotting what could later be acclaimed as one — take, for instance, the wholesale initial rejection of JK Rowling, whose success all publishers are now desperate to replicate.

This being borne in mind, the reasoning behind those shelves full of celebrity-scribed children’s books is easy to follow. Celebrities bring large followings wherever they go. When they announce a book, their followers on Twitter and Instagram give it free press; when they publish a book, those followers more than likely buy it. The promise of large sales, generated by large name recognition, gives publishers and booksellers ample motivation to pour marketing money into the publicity campaign, building on that initial foundation of a well-known individual in order to create a (very relative) juggernaut.

Many industries could be said to experience, and even to rely upon, the snowball effect. In trade publishing, the snowball effect is nearly everything. If a book gets a few good reviews, whether online or better still in publications, people are more likely to buy it — they may then review it. Seeing these reviews, more people will buy it — and so it continues. The early name recognition guarantees a relatively high initial uptake of the book, and increases the chance that the snowball effect will take place. Once it begins, it doesn’t stop for a while. When a book is on a bestseller list, it gains even more attention, and often stays on that list for some time. When that’s the case, the book is a financial success, the frequently exorbitant advance given to capture the celebrity’s signature is justified, and all is well.

An article in the Financial Times last year observed that children’s book sales climbed by 16 per cent last year. This was helped in large part by JK Rowling’s The Cursed Child, which sold as well as Rowling’s books customarily do. Even once the “Rowling effect” is taken out of the data, though, the children’s book market still rose. Some have attributed this to the successful arrivals of celebrity authors, especially the aforementioned comedian David Walliams, who had two of his books in the top ten bestsellers for 2016. The editor of Bloomsbury — the publishing house behind Harry Potter, now arguably leading the children’s book market — noted, however, that this surge is driven as much by parental distaste for social media and digital entertainment as it is by anything else.

He said, “Parents have a general wish to see their children read print rather than spend too much time attached to their phone. There’s a slight fear of social media going on and people are saying ‘let’s get back to basics.’”

In other words, parents would be buying books for their children, regardless of who wrote them. The existence of a celebrity-written book does not increase the chance of a book being bought; it increases the chance, quite logically, of that book being bought. What effect, then, are celebrity books having in the field of children’s books? They’re not, it seems, bringing in new readers — or if they are, the increase is not significant. Celebrity authors aren’t necessarily bringing more readers onto the market, buying books where they otherwise wouldn’t have done. Instead, they’re merely diverting readers, or the parents buying for those readers, away from buying many books in small numbers, in favour of buying fewer books in large numbers. Whether those children’s books, in particular, deserve to be bought is another question.

Great children’s books fire the mind with imagination: they contain gems of thought from writers that have to write, and want to share something of their joy in it with others. When you think of the most-loved children’s books: Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Rowling’s Harry Potter, Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, they all have this in common. Indeed, Julia Donaldson herself observes that this is a uniting strand that runs through the children’s books of Britain in particular. “Children’s books are one of the things that we do best as a nation,” she says. “Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Railway Children, Treasure Island, Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter… all these are British creations which we’ve successfully exported all over the world.”

They’re consequently books to be passed down from one generation to the next. They capture the imagination, and the pages stay with the reader, the memories of loved characters carried forward and remembered. Whether Frank Lampard’s seventeen books of Frankie’s Magic Football will last any longer than people remember Frank Lampard the footballer is quite another thing.

The gulf in literary quality between the average celebrity-written children’s novel and those listed by Donaldson is matched by the gulf between the intentions of the average celebrity writer and those of the “actual” children’s writer. For the children’s writer, writing is a way to share pleasure, to spark thoughts and to create great ideas and dreams. For the celebrity writer, the children’s book is normally part of a larger portfolio. It is an investment of time and usually, in fact, of very little time. Frank Lampard’s books were written in collaboration, an arrangement far from unusual. There is little more evidence required when considering the intentions of the writer: ghost writing is forgivable in a memoir, but when one examines the purposes of a writer of fiction, the presence of a ghost writer on a title page is a smoking gun. The ghostwritten novel is not the product of a genuine desire to share brilliant thoughts, and cannot be; it is the celebrity’s name that is being distributed, rather than their ideas.

It’s no surprise, then, that the “celebrity-written” works of children’s literature are widely derided as insipid and derivative. Is that, though, what we ought to want children to read? Richard Charkin, the Bloomsbury editor, thinks that parents are buying books to keep children occupied away from screens. If the books to which they are first exposed are dull and largely indistinguishable, there seems little chance that they will go on to love reading — bad for both the individual, and for the publishing industry as a whole in the future.

New literature to stir the soul, however, is becoming harder to find. Celebrity writing is, for publishing, a little like doping is in sports: once one competitor starts doing it, the others find that they need to do it, too, if they are to keep up. The celebrity name diverts sales to the publishing house selling that name; others must find their own celebrities if they are to keep themselves level with that first house. For a writer to break in as a non-celebrity, and to get a reasonable advance on their book, thus becomes considerably harder. It becomes harder still to actually forge a career as a children’s author. As was previously noted, publishing is a game in which the snowball effect is imperative: marketing is almost always everything. In order to generate the sales necessary to offset the cost of that large advance, the publishing house must market the celebrity book to the high heavens. This takes away marketing money previously used to sell books on a more meritocratic basis. Concentrating money on more certain investments is safer than distributing it between several worthier, but riskier, schemes. Accordingly, the less-marketed books sell less well; and with neither high advances nor high sales, many children’s authors are having to return to the day job despite, in some cases, holding numerous awards. Recognised quality is not always enough.

Celebrity writing is much like doping in sport; but in publishing, as in sport, the dopers do not necessarily always win. It is now harder for merit to out, but it does out nonetheless. The enormous success of the 2016 adult novel The Essex Serpent is testimony to this. Coming from a relatively small imprint of profile books, and with comparatively little initial marketing, the second novel of Sarah Perry unexpectedly claimed the Waterstone’s Book of the Year prize. From there, it rampaged to overwhelming sales and swept the board of prizes, beating out even The Cursed Child on both fronts.

What does that tell us? Celebrity writers by no means hold a monopoly; even with little marketing, brilliant writing can still be recognised, and can still make a success out of a little-known book and a little-known author. This is encouraging. For the meantime, though, what does the future hold for celebrity-written books — and for their rivals? It certainly doesn’t look like publishers will be slowing in their scramble for famous signatures; and with that, it also doesn’t look like new writers will be finding their dream any easier to accomplish. There’s encouragement to be found, to be sure, in examples like that of The Essex Serpent. On the whole, though, the quality of “mainstream” children’s literature seems to be on the descent, and it does not bode well for either future writers, or for those who are currently reading it.



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