Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The sleb effect

If you have been paying attention, much of what follows may be well known to you. But bear with me. Something which might be mistaken, on a dark night, for original thought, may appear at the end.

Somewhere in one of yesterday's papers (and I cannot now find it, of course, when I want it), there was the result of some research carried out with British children into what aspects of life they thought important. It turns out that what modern British kids think is most important -- more vital than being healthy, for example -- is being a celebrity.

Who can blame them? Poor little devils, they grow up surrounded by convincing evidence that being famous is indeed the most gracious state to which they can aspire. The available evidence suggests to their impressionable little minds that celebrity will bring with it everything that could conceivably be of value: friends, money, security, popularity, leisure, travel; and all like that.

Furthermore, it is abundantly obvious to the little ones that, in order to achieve celebrity you don't actually have to do anything. It is sufficient to be. Witness the Jades, Jordans, and countless others who have become a blur in my mind.

So commonplace a topic of playground discussion has the celebrity phenomenon become that the term celebrity itself is now subject to abbreviation. Celebrity is no longer quite a four-syllable word: the kreck pronunciation now is sleb.

The publishing industry sometimes seems to hold the same view as the kids: i.e. that slebs are the most important people on the face of the planet. Certainly there has been, in the last decade particularly, a constant stream of sleb biographies: or, much more commonly, autobiographies, nearly all of them ghosted.

Some of these sleb books have proved massively successful. For example, Peter Kay, a man whom I have barely heard of but who evidently has a huge following, is currently selling 80,000 copies a week.

The result of this situation is that the half-dozen or so big-time trade publishers in the UK have for some time been involved in a bidding war. An agent who represents a sleb has only to lift the phone, it seems, and bids of a million or so will follow.

Last week, Tim Hely Hutchinson, head of Hachette UK (i.e. Hodder Headline, Orion et cetera), declared, with typical English understatement, that UK publishers may have paid too much for some celebrity biographies. And in Prospect, as mentioned here last Thursday, Trevor Dolby made the same point.

What we've been short of, until this week, was some data revealing just how appalling some of these over-payments have been. Always assuming, of course, that the reported figures for advances paid are something like the truth. Of which more in a moment.

This week, happily, Private Eye has provided some sales figures to illuminate the discussion. Set out below are some classic examples of business-decision failures; the name of the celebrity is followed by the reported size of the advance, and the total sales so far (which in many cases will be the total sales ever). Bear in mind that, according to Dolby, sales of 333,000 of a £20 book are needed to recoup the advance:

David Blunkett -- £400,000 -- 2,000
Gary Barlow -- £1,000,000 -- 50,000
Johnson Beharry -- £1,000,000 -- 18,000
Rupert Everett -- £1,000,000 -- 20,000
Ashley Cole -- £250,000 -- 4,000
Michael Barrymore -- £300,000 -- 5,000
Chantelle -- £400,000 -- under 5,000
Shayne Ward -- £200,000 -- under 5,000

Is it possible, one asks oneself, that UK publishers could have been quite so stupid? Well yes, it is. Long years of observation leave us with no option but to conclude that.

True, a new novel by this year's Great Hope (not all of them White these days) will typically be publicised as having been paid a 'six-figure advance'. But I would be willing to bet quite a chunk of my pension that, in most cases, said contract is actually for two books, at least, with staged payments, some of which will be geared to the performance of the first book in the marketplace. So the massive sum (if you think of £100,000 as massive) is not quite so massive after all.

But in the case of sleb books, I have a nasty feeling that the £1 million probably means £1 million.

In other words, UK publishers are bleeding money. Again.

So what, we may reasonably ask, is the sleb effect?

I suggest that this trend has two principal effects on a mainstream trade publisher: lost of prestige, and loss of interest.

There was a time when publishing was perceived as a prestigious activity. It was, as the title of Frederick Warburg's autobiography made clear, An Occupation for a Gentleman. It was also a business in which the daughters of genteel parents could safely be allowed to spend their time until, inevitably, they got married in St George's, Hanover Square.

But now? Now publishing companies are revealed as publishers of trash, to use a polite word. A young lady, acting as receptionist to Snipcock and Tweed, may find herself mixing with the likes of Jordan, Jade, and Chantelle; not to mention some thoroughly undesirable socially, though undeniably desirable sexually, young men. And think where that could lead.

The lip-curling will not end with mummy and daddy. It will spread throughout the media and the financial world.

Ah yes. Finance. And there's the real problem.

Publishing you see, as implicitly recognised in its reputation as a suitable profession for a gentleman, has never made any money. The evidence is overwhelming. I defy you to read, for instance, Eric de Bellaigue's British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s, and come to any other conclusion. 'Trade publishing,' he tells us, 'is by no means a sure route to financial success.' For the sophisticated investor, it is something that he might take a bet on, much as he might buy a share in a race horse.

There was a time, centred around the 1980s, when a number of big international companies somehow conceived that publishing could be made to generate serious money if the publishers were absorbed into conglomerates which contained television, film, real estate in the form of theatres, cinemas, and so forth. Synergy would result -- that was the theory.

Time, for example, bought the small English publisher Andre Deutsch. Privately, both Deutsch and his right-hand woman, Diana Athill, considered that this purchase was remarkably silly; and so it proved.

A sense of reality soon dawned on the big companies which had absorbed the smaller fish. And now, miserabile dictu, there is talk that the big companies might actually dump their publishing arms. Success in publishing, when it occurs, is demonstrably more due to the roll of the dice than anything else, and perhaps that's not the best way to run a business.

Time Warner, for instance, decided to sell its book division earlier this year to French media company Lagardere. And there is speculation that other media giants might decide to follow Time Warner's example.

CBS might sell Simon & Schuster; NewsCorp might dump HarperCollins (it has been a bit of a nuisance lately). 'Both companies,' says one analyst, 'would be fine without books, and getting rid of those divisions could give a boost to their growth rates.'

There are, apparently, private equity firms which might be willing to buy these publishing firms, and then try to achieve what so many others have already tried, and failed. The argument, apparently, is that publishers generate 'steady streams of cash'. That's not my impression, or Galleycat's either, but then a lot of private equity companies seem to think that they are much cleverer than the rest of us.

Let's hope that such companies do come forward to buy up the failures. And that they can indeed turn things around. Otherwise trade publishing is going to be in even bigger trouble than it is already.


Anonymous said...

There's more on Petrona and the Guardian blogs about this here. See the comments as well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reference, James -- I was going to comment, before I saw your comment, that my understanding is that the publishers recoup these ridiculous advances via serialisation rights and the like, in the newspapers. In other words, they don't have to actually sell these books.

I hope, Michael, that you can take with a pinch of salt that "kids want to be celebrities" poll. I pay little attention to these newspaper poll stories, but even if it were true on this occasion, there are plenty of children who don't want to be celebrities I can assure you. And for those that do -- well, I suppose wanting to be a celebrity is better than going out and beating up old grannies.

I read an article in Publishers Weekly recently (I think it was PW) about Random House expanding its POD list. I am conscious of being on the outside of the book publishing industry, but from an economic point of view, it strikes me as the way to go -- a publisher does not have to take such a big risk on a book and can essentially just market it (via its website) -- interested readers can order it via POD, overall costs are down (a bit like the various Macmillan schemes, the publisher does not need to pay advances for these "mid list" books) and readers benefit.

Probably there are reasons against that haven't occurred to me, but it seems like a good model for everyone (except maybe the celebs, said she hopefully!)

Anonymous said...

"Furthermore, it is abundantly obvious to the little ones that, in order to achieve celebrity you don't actually have to do anything. It is sufficient to be."

Many years ago, a friend of mine came up with a name for this disease: CINEMATOSIS.

That's right: Cinematosis.

Essentially, this is what happens: a kid watches a film, say, something about Van Gogh, who stands in a field with some sunflowers, maybe strokes a canvas five or six times, and in less than two hours his work is worth millions of dollars. He is famous.

The condition is especially sad when it comes to films about sports. A basketball player is seen making five or six shots...and you get the picture. When the kid signs up for basketball to become a star (in the 5th Grade, of course), he or she is immediately put off once it becomes apparent that two hours later, at the end of practice, he or she will be dirty and sweaty and bruised, and still have a long ways to go. No thank you, they say. And they go back to the film, where everything happens so easily and quickly.

To my knowledge, Cinematosis is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or any book on diseases, probably because the pharmaceutical companies have not thought to cash in on it.

However, I think it deserves to be listed in Wiki. Somebody please get on this.

My friend, Shae Stewart, coined the term some years ago, so please give her credit.

Anonymous said...

Eventually POD will be how it's all done, because it makes sense. I know, that's why they don't do it...

Jon Allen said...

More references to cinematosis on
this blog :

Audra Wolfmann claims to have named the condition
in Modern Illness in 1998

Anonymous said...

Hah! I heard it from Shae Stewart around 1994!

I'm sure she'd be more than happy to share the award, or give it away completely...


Anonymous said...

Celebrity as we know it today (i.e. slebrity) is a phenomenon of the media age. Until the twentieth century, people knew very few faces apart from those of their own acquaintances, and only those voices which came to them straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Slebrity began with cinema, but got its real boost from television. Since the late fifties, children have learned from birth that the two-dimensional figures on the little screen are the people who really count in the world. (‘Shh! I’m trying to listen to the news.’ ‘Stand out of the way –- you’re blocking my view.’) No wonder anyone under the age of fifty is in thrall to the Box.

In our winner-takes-all economy, the likes of Jade and Jordan receive phenomenal rewards which they have clearly done nothing to deserve. And this leads to massive disappointment for those who cannot see why they should be left out. To quote from something I once wrote: ‘In truth, 99.99 per cent of hopefuls will spend a lifetime yearning for what, contrived appearances notwithstanding, was never meant to be theirs in the first place.’

The inevitable result is that many are now deeply resentful of slebs, even if the manipulators of slebrity –- agents such as Max Clifford, and the media generally -– are too busy making money to notice it. Tumbrils may yet roll with weeping slebs on board.

(A quick aside. I fully recognise that this is a small matter in global terms. As the poor become poorer and the world becomes smaller, rich people generally –- you and me, I’m afraid –- might yet find a place on those tumbrils ourselves. History tells us that there’s only so much suffering and oppression that people will tolerate.)

But on to publishing. Since the giant multinational conglomerates took over, sales and marketing have ruled over the territory which used to be the preserve of editorial. As a result, sleb potboilers are now ubiquitous. Of course, the great majority of books don’t fall into this category at all, but so much time and money goes into them that the real unknowns are now frozen out almost completely.

It’s all very well to say (as many do) that this is all fine and dandy: that’s where the money is, and publishers have to make profits. Well, you can bet the shirt on your back that anyone who recreated the gladiatorial combats of the Roman arena would make a fortune, but that wouldn’t make it a good thing. A nasty tacky phenomenon (like sleb culture) remains a nasty tacky phenomenon however much money it makes.

It may be (please God) that the money men will finally decide that publishing isn’t worth it, and will go elsewhere in their desperation to become ever richer and ever more powerful. But until then, sleb potboilers and Harry Potter will continue to obsess the big publishers.

And this is why those big publishers remain remarkably resistant to Print-on-Demand (POD). The next Harry Potter comes risk-free: it’s guaranteed to sell millions, so a vast print run is the only way to do it. POD, being a means of cutting losses in advance, implies risk, and the big publishers (though they do it all the time) are desperate to eliminate risk. What they want is sure-fire money-spinners.

Sorry to be a prophet of doom, but I honestly don’t see much hope. Sleb culture is here to stay -– at least until the tumbrils roll -– and sleb potboilers are an inevitable part of it. Yes, there are small publishers who have nothing to do with slebs; yes, there’s Lulu, with whom anyone can publish anything for nothing. But our world is money-mad, and no one is likely to get far who cannot persuade the Rupert Murdochs that he or she is a potential gold-mine. It’s just the way things are.

Jon said...

Another side-effect of sleb worship is that it encourages talented people to do things they're no good at. Hugh Laurie writes a novel, Gerry Halliwell addresses the UN, Mel Gibson pontificates on religion, all because nobody's told them to shut up and get on with what they can do well. It all adds up to a lot of wasted time that could have been spent entertaining.

Anonymous said...

The 21-year-old Wayne Rooney contracted for an autobiography in 4 (or is it 5) volumes - enough said.

Anonymous said...

Michael Barrymore his large £ addvance and poor book sales, this book was in poor taste on the back of the publicity on the death of Stuart Lubbock, public have seen through Mr Barrymore.

Anonymous said...

So, how much to the ghostwriters (ie the people doing the actual work) get paid by the publishers for writing these books?

Does anyone know?

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