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World News It’s not true that everyone’s got a book in them: give writing back to the writers | Stephanie Merritt

Show captionNadine Dorries, the culture secretary, has set the bar rather low for would-be cabinet ministers and celebrity authors. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPAOpinionThe latest craze in celebrity publishing is to bring a ‘ghost’ in. Do it yourself or not at allSun 10 Jul 2022 04.30 EDT‘Dear UK publishers,” tweeted the writer and presenter Damian Barr on…

News It’s not true that everyone’s got a book in them: give writing back to the writers | Stephanie Merritt
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Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, has set the bar rather low for would-be cabinet ministers and celebrity authors. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA

Opinion

The latest craze in celebrity publishing is to bring a ‘ghost’ in. Do it yourself or not at all

Sun 10 Jul 2022 04.30 EDT

‘Dear UK publishers,” tweeted the writer and presenter Damian Barr on Wednesday as the resignation letters flurried in like the owl post down Harry Potter’s chimney. “Please don’t buy their memoirs.” I felt compelled to remind him that there was an infinitely worse prospect: that all these ex-ministers and parliamentary private secretaries would take advantage of their free time to write their “novels”. After all, if Nadine Dorries can do it (publishing a novel or being appointed to a cabinet post), the bar must surely be set low enough to make anyone feel they may as well have a go.

There’s precedent, obviously. Plenty of politicians have been persuaded that writing fiction is a legitimate second job, in a long and respected tradition that stretches from Benjamin Disraeli to Ann Widdecombe. Tom Watson, the former Labour deputy leader, currently has a thriller out, co-written with the novelist Imogen Robertson, and Watson deserves a special round of applause for having the humility and honesty to give Robertson equal billing on the cover.

It’s when you hear rumours of prominent figures in the area of politics, journalism and entertainment using unacknowledged ghost writers that the whole celebrity novel business starts to stick in your throat somewhat. I mean, if you don’t have the skill set to do a particular job, to the point where you have to pay someone who does to carry out the actual work, then maybe it’s worth considering whether you are entitled to pursue that career. It’s hard to think of any other art form so consistently assumed to have absolutely no bar to entry.

You rarely see comedians or television presenters presuming to try their hand at being a concert pianist. And yet producing a novel is now such a well-established rung on the light entertainment career ladder that these books are in danger of becoming the rhododendrons of the publishing ecosystem: not necessarily unappealing, in their own gaudy way, but in danger of choking off every other variety.

You might be thinking that this all sounds like a bunch of sour grapes and it’s not my intention to take a cheap shot at affable white men off the telly whose public profile has propelled their otherwise unexceptional novels into the bestseller lists at the expense of more deserving writers (by which I don’t just mean me, although obviously I also mean me).

Publishing is often regarded as an ecosystem and it’s worth looking at how that functions in practice. It’s long been accepted that big-name bestsellers generate revenue, which is then reinvested in new, diverse talent or prestige literary novels. Even before the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, publishers and booksellers were growing ever more risk-averse.

Yet a recognisable name brings some guarantee of a return, especially in conjunction with the rise of the “An Evening With…” format, coming unavoidably to a theatre near you any minute.

There’s nothing wrong with the format in itself; audiences pay to see their favourite celebrity interviewed live and perhaps even ask them a direct question. Time was, if you were a television personality who had written a book, you’d do one of these events and hope that a decent percentage of the audience would hang around afterwards to buy the book and get it signed. Inevitably, though, many of them would have trains to catch or wouldn’t be that bothered about the book.

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And then, in recent years, some marketing genius realised you could make this a lot more convenient and profitable by simply removing the element of choice from the punters. Now, it’s standard practice for many of these events to include a copy of the book in the ticket price and here’s the beauty of it: all those book sales count towards the chart position. So, if you’re a public figure who can fill a 1,500-seat theatre for a few nights in the week of publication, you’re pretty much guaranteed an instant place on the bestseller lists, with no need to wait for reviews or word of mouth. Debut writers and those without a similar profile can’t hope to compete.

Maybe all’s fair in love and marketing and the increasing celebrification of the fiction lists is simply, as the outgoing prime minister might put it, Darwinian. However, once I’m the culture secretary – and I feel my turn can’t be far off since we’ve reached the stage where we’re all going to be expected to step up to a cabinet post sooner or later, rather like jury service – I will be introducing two new laws with immediate effect.

The first is that anyone off the telly who thinks they have the chops to write a novel will be obliged to publish it first under a pseudonym, with only the average promotional budget of a typical debut; they can reveal their true identity once we’ve established whether readers actually think the book is any good. The second law is that the only food permitted for sale in theatres will be marshmallows in cloth bags.

I realise these policies may not go down well with certain sectors of the publishing and entertainment industry, but since when was being unpopular an obstacle to holding public office?

• Stephanie Merritt’s latest novel is Storm

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