In the United Kingdom and Ireland, there existed something called the net book agreement as early as 1899, which enabled publishers to set the retail prices of books and refuse to stock any retailer that tried to provide discounts, although not many complained because it worked in their interest. In 1962, this practice was questioned by the court but declared in the public interest because it allowed publishers to subsidise the works of talented authors. However, by the 1990s, the free market was in full swing and chain bookshops that were dominating the market defined public interest by price, making it their mission to abolish the net book agreement. This led to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) declaring the agreement illegal at the restrictive practices court in 1997, and what followed was universal regard of this fait accompli.
What does this all mean to a layman? Well, book retail giants (now, including Amazon) came into the mass market with huge discounts, expanding the reading market greatly. Which should be great, right? Well, yes, but it also led to the creation of a need for mass-market reads, things we see on radio, TV, music, and films, aka celebrity books.
The biography of Billy Connolly was perhaps the first nail in the coffin of celebrity books ruling the market, and it has stayed so ever since.
An editor at a leading publishing house who prefers to be unnamed says, “Biographies have been a great example of this. And they were doing well even before celebrities started writing books.”
While India did not have a similar agreement because India has always sold books at market retail price (MRP) versus the UK which sells books on recommended retail price (RRP), the reason the same phenomenon has overtaken the publishing market here is because “we always emulate the West”, and there, biographies on celebrities written by prolific writers have long been taken over by celebrities wanting to bring their voice to their story. Not to say anything of India’s obsession with everything celebrity—need we say anything of the blind celebrity worshipping that we see on an everyday basis?
And the numbers prove the maths. Insider information says that celebrities get an easy seven-digit advance while other authors get a five-digit one, and we are talking five-digit on the lower scale.
“I think it began with Karan Johar’s book and it has taken many others by storm,” another editor says.
Whether it is cricketers, musicians, actors, and now even social media influencers—anyone with a good Instagram following and face value can beat a good author to not only a good advance but also a quick publishing contract. Think Kareena Kapoor, Soha Ali Khan, Sourav Ganguly, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Shilpa Shetty, Emraan Hashmi, Suresh Raina—the list goes on.
As an author myself, I can say that getting to the contract is a long journey, but it is not the case if you have a popular face or a sizable social media following. Having worked as an agent, I know the quick appeal of celebrities. The first question now is, “What is the social media following”, which determines whether a book is taken up and what advance is given, doesn’t matter the quality.
“It is also about buying turnovers,” says editor number two who prefers to remain unnamed, because, after all, these are important books that do help bring in the greens. “There are many cogs in the wheel to keep happy, and books that have a large print run and a big chance of selling out keep the pay cheques for everyone coming. It also helps us put money into authors and books we really believe in.”
Sounds fair? Economically, absolutely. But the truth is that the shelf life of a beautifully written small to mid-sized well-crafted novel is shortened, as is the life of the authors, because of it being eaten up by celebrities. While there are more and more books being published, there are very few that are written by small and mid-sized authors, and more so with enough marketing push.
Add to that the quality of reading that these books offer. Not to say that they are all bad, but I recently read Prince Harry’s Spare, and while I liked 200 pages of the 400, primarily because who isn’t invested in an insider scoop of the royal goings-on, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would not have been rejected for the meandering and tedious 200 more pages. I felt the same about the eight other celebrity writings I read before writing this piece.
And just to understand if I was writing this piece simply on bias view, I asked people around me about their favourite books, not letting go of why I asked, and not a single one of them named a celebrity book, or even a biography. This made me wonder if there is truth to the hypothesis that while celebrity books are good for economic turnover, and do make for a fun scoop, they are eating up the share of merit-worthy authors and not offering as quality a reading experience as others.
This is why I have to ask everyone who is reading this to consider what you are buying when you pick up a familiar face; browse through other books before making the buy, even if you end up picking up the celebrity books. There is a lot more out there that the publishing world has to offer, and the only way that pool increases is if we make sure they know there is a growing audience for it.