Books, Brands & Celebrities

I would like to thank everyone who has contacted me in support of this piece but, in truth, I did not enjoy writing it. I like writing children’s fiction. That’s my job. However, many children’s authors now find themselves in a peculiar situation of feeling like our jobs are being stolen by a small selection of rich & famous people. As one of my fellow authors put it recently, imagine going into work to find Peter Kay doing your job. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t do it as well as you. I mean, it’s TV’s Peter Kay – who cares? He gets paid more than you do because, well, it’s Peter Kay – come on, everyone loves that guy. What would you do? Accept that Peter Kay has every right to do your job if he wants? Or would you fight for your right to do your job? Bear in mind that if you fight, you will be taking on people much richer and more famous than you – people with armies of fans willing to back them up. It is this uncomfortable, surreal – and pretty hopeless – scenario that many writers of children’s fiction now find themselves in. So with apologies for any rage this has now caused in the celebrity community, here is my piece on celebrity authors.

I spent much of last week trying to work out how to structure my thoughts on celebrity children’s authors. I needed something written up before a piece I have recorded for The One Show airs. Happily on 2nd December 2018, David Baddiel came to my rescue with this tweet.

He then went on to clarify:

These two tweets explain a lot about the current state of the UK children’s book market.

Firstly, and most noticeably, both authors mentioned, are better known for their work as comedians on television. That is fair enough. We have all had different jobs and we all use what advantage we have to promote and sell our books. At schools and festivals I play a variety of instruments, sing and rap about my books. Not everyone can do this. I do it because I love doing it. Over the past 12 years, I have written 36 books for children of all ages. I love my job and I believe I am good at it. But it is under threat.

The runaway success of the Walliams brand was a game changer in Children’s books. I remember talking to a publisher a few years ago who was looking for a similar ‘household name’ to write children’s books. They needed a name people would recognise and trust. They needed a celebrity ’author’.

I should probably explain why the inverted commas. Undoubtedly, some celebrities write their own books. Others have ghostwriters. Some of them work closely with their writers, just as they do on television. I am told that some celebrity authors firmly believe they write their own books because they submit a manuscript. The fact that their efforts are in desperate need of rescuing by thorough and copious editing process is neither here nor there.

Baddiel’s jokey little gripe garnered a rather astonished reaction from the large – and for the most part friendly, supportive – network of children’s authors who waste their days on twitter. I am one of them but I try not to interact with anyone who has a K in their number of followers. No good ever comes of it.

Most supermarkets now stock books by David Baddiel, David Walliams, Tom Fletcher, and whoever this month’s celebrity bandwagon jumper is. (Alongside these celebrity names, are those writers who made it big before the new wave of celebrities hit. You have to wonder if  Jacqueline Wilson or Julia Donaldson be so successful if they had come up in the current climate?)

This tiny selection of mostly celebrity books gets sold everywhere. Prior to the publication of the latest book from the Walliams stable, I heard of various people who were asked by the staff of one high street retailer if they wanted to order it – in spite of having expressed no interest in the book. Others got enticed with free books by other authors if they ordered it in advance.

Celebrity books are as accessible, affordable and aggressively marketed as McDonalds meals. They crowd the shelves of supermarkets and major retailers, elbowing other books out of the way.

It is worth paying careful attention to the tone and insinuation of Baddiel’s tweet. His books are ‘actually liked and bought by children’, unlike these lesser books by less famous people. He doesn’t mention which of the featured books he would he have bumped off in order to slide his own in, but I doubt it would be one by anyone he had actually heard of – or read. Also, interestingly, he was complaining about having been missed off The Times list, a publication owned by the same group that publish his children’s books.

Hundreds of fellow authors have contacted me in support of this piece, but I am expecting a different reaction from parents. I know from the years I worked in television (with a number of the names mentioned here) that fans consider celebrities to be their friends. They get very protective over them. Also, I am talking about books that have been bought, read and loved.

‘But my daughter loves David Walliams.’

That’s great. It is probably best not to tell her about that time he presented the President’s Club or the way in which Little Britain turned the tables on the alternative comedy of the 1980s and made it acceptable to laugh at the weak and powerless again.

For publishers, celebrity names present an attractive prospect. They already have a recognisable brand. They have thousands of followers on social media. They will be invited to all the big literary festivals and interviewed on television and radio. In spite of Baddiel’s moan, they are more likely to be reviewed in newspapers. They haven’t spent years honing their craft. They have been helicoptered in at the top, pushing more established authors further down to pile. Book prizes often like to have a famous face on the shortlist because it adds a sense of glamour and these days, they can take their pick. Other writers of children’s books now include Miranda Hart, Dermot O’Leary, Ben Miller, Julian Clary, Ade Edmonson, Russell Brand and Alesha Dixon.

A strong argument often made in defence of the dominance of celebrity children’s authors is that ‘anything which gets a book in a child’s hands is a good thing’.

There is no doubt that the aggressive marketing of the Walliams brand has led to many children picking up his books, reading and enjoying them. The same goes for the other authors on the list, because it isn’t just the likelihood of being invited on Graham Norton that helps sell the books. All these wealthy people received large advances. The publisher then set aside wads of marketing cash to help recoup those costs.

Others argue that the bigger authors help finance the publishers, which means they have money to take on riskier, less known authors. This is basic trickle down economics, and seeing how that has panned out for the world, I don’t think we need to waste any more time on that thought.

‘But my son loves David Baddiel’s books.’

That is great. I daresay they are very well written, but there are so many authors out there whose books your son would also like, if he had the opportunity to find them. These are books written by people who have dedicated their lives to writing for children. Many are established ambassadors for literacy, libraries and creativity. And let’s face it. No 8-year-old has been watching old episodes of The Mary Whitehouse Experience, wondering when the scruffy one is going to bring out a book. The names are selected to appeal to the parents, not the children. They are designed to appeal to you.

So, what am I saying? If Dermot O’Leary wants to write about his pet cat, am I arguing that he should be wrestled to the ground and have his hands glued together? I am not arguing that. Please do not do that. But if your child has enjoyed the adventures of Toto the Ninja Cat, maybe direct them next to the superbly written Varjak Paw by SF Said – or to the ten books in my own series The Ninja Meerkats.

If Ben Miller becomes the latest celebrity name to get an idea from his children, (as so many of them claim) should a band ofdisgruntled impoverished authors who have dedicated their lives to writing for children sneak into his house and remove all the paper? No, probably not. But if you want a good Christmas book then why not ask your bookshop if they have I Killed Father Christmas by Anthony McGowan.

If Lightning Girl by Alesha Dixon sparks your child’s interest then you might want to check out the Electrigirl series by Jo Cotterill.

If your child likes the funny books that come from the stables of Clary and Baddiel, why not try directing them to the genius Stinkbomb & Ketchup series by John Dougherty or the hilarious Picklewitch & Jack by Claire Barker.

And then there are all the rich variety of flavours that aren’t catered for by the slim celebrity selection. I’m talking about the weird, the wacky and the wildly imaginative worlds found in the books of Chris Priestley, A.F. HaorldRachel Delahaye & Guy Bass.

There are so many great books out there written by writers for whom children’s fiction is their prime passion (rather than a secondary income). These are the organic, home-grown, free-range, artisan books – so much more nutritious, richer in flavour (and more sustainably reared) than the tiny range you will find in your supermarket. And all you need to do to find them is to walk into your local book and ask.

‘Why would I bother? What does it matter who writes the books?’

By only ever presenting our children with books written by people more famous for doing other things, we are in danger of telling a generation that in order to achieve something (like write a book) you need to be famous, when I think even most celebrities would argue that it should be the other way round.

If publishers need brands, then they need to have more faith in their ability to build them, with reliable authors who will deliver consistently good, daring and exciting books – as well as meeting their deadlines. Children’s fiction authors make a living out of lying to children, but I don’t think that should extend to lying about what it takes to write a good book. In schools I am often asked about the rejection I had to go through. Both the teachers and the kids want to hear it. It is part of the message that children’s authors impart when we visit schools. It is part of our job.

The day after David Baddiel’s initial tweet, he added a new one. ‘Apologies for the rage this has caused in the children’s writing community. Although in some ways I’ve enjoyed it: they do scold you in a quite a morally nutritious way.’

This deliberately patronising follow-up misses the point. The community – from which he so slickly distances himself – is under attack. My concern about writing this is that it is, in essence, an attack on fellow authors. But this is not an attack. It is a defence. Donald Trump’s inauguration acted as a sharp reminder of the political consequences of celebrity culture. Celebrity is power. A book with a household name printed boldly on its cover has the power to bully other books out of their way.

‘Hm, sounds like sour grapes to me, mate. All the authors you have mentioned have massively outsold you, Gareth. Face it, they are just better than you.’

McDonalds is the most successful seller of burgers and fries in the world. Does McDonalds make the best burgers and fries in the world? No. It is just the most successful brand.

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