Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Selling Michael Jackson

A few months ago, every major publishing company in the world will have considered the same question:

Win, lose, or draw, can we sell a book about Michael Jackson?

The question is by no means a simple one. True, the big publishers have some data to guide them. They will know, in detail, of the success or failure of books about similar high-profile cases; and they will have some idea of how well books about Michael Jackson, in particular, have sold in the past. But the present situation is much harder to assess.

Consider the various factors. As Matt Drudge pointed out on a recent visit to the UK, the Jackson trial was a much bigger story than the O.J. Simpson trial. No one outside America had heard of O.J., but everyone in the Ukraine and Papua New Guinea knows who Michael Jackson is. That's a plus. The subject is, in a sense, pre-sold.

But there are lots of minuses. First, there is the just plain sordid nature of the allegations.

Perhaps I am prejudiced, but it seems to me that the Brits in the US have been the most astute observers of the Jackson phenomenon. Tina Brown, in the Washington Post, pointed out that the question that the jury had to decide was this: was Jackson a complete lunatic who slept with young boys and didn't fondle them, or was he a complete lunatic who slept with young boys and did. Neither picture is very pleasant to contemplate.

Then there's Andrew Sullivan, who in the latest Sunday Times argued that the Jackson trial has highlighted aspects of America that most Americans would prefer to forget or ignore. On the one side we see the celebrity culture in which the rich can apparently get away with almost anything; and on the other hand we have the subculture of greed and litigation in which the feckless and idle grab as much as they can from, at best, questionable law suits.

And then there's timing of publishing a book. Even if you do the ground work while the trial is on, much depends on the verdict. And however fast you move it's going to take weeks to produce a book after that. Meanwhile, the media circus will have chewed it all up and spat it all out, a million times over. Is there really anything left for the book market?

I suspect not. I would have passed on doing a book myself. The world has, after all, changed dramatically since the O.J. Simpson affair. Then, the internet had hardly been heard of. Today, everyone likely to be interested, potentially, in reading a book about the Jackson trial will also be plenty smart enough to have explored every conceivable nuance of the affair over the web.

My guess is that, over the next few days, we shall see an absolute firestorm of comment in the blogosphere. Very little of it, I suspect, will have anything kind or supportive to say about Michael Jackson; but, whether the public verdict is pro or con, I don't think there's going to be much left for the book world to turn into a profit.

But we shall see.


archer said...

The O.J. trial was about the Blonde and the Black. The Blonde and the Black, as Gerry Spence pointed out, is America's favorite story. Americans can't get enough of it. The monster seething black animal! The knife! The tender white flesh! HOT Damn! We love that stuff. The Jackson trial, on the other hand, was about The Weird-Looking Singer and the Six Young Boys Who Did Yucky Things With Him In Bed. That is not America's favorite story. We don't like that stuff. We avoid it.

My guess--just based upon too many decades of living here--is that the Jackson episode won't sell, unless it's My Story, by Michael Jackson and an appropriate co-author.

Peter L. Winkler said...

I would tend to agree with you that the wall to wall media and Internet coverage of any celebrity trial would leave anypone so satiated that there would be no market for a book. However, look at the Scott Peterson case. His mistress's book was a best seller, there was a made for tv movie and I've read that there are several more books in the pipeline.