Time to cut the crap

Liz Thomson
Opinion - Publishing Monday, 24th November 2008

It's no great surprise that Jonathan Ross will face no further action as a result of his and Russell Brand's involvement in the Sachsgate affair. He will return to our screens - and to his £6m a year job with the BBC - in late January following a 12-week suspension that has cost him £1.5m: more than many people earn in a lifetime.

Just as well he banked that extra dollop for his memoirs, though given that the deal with Larry Finlay of Transworld was around eight years ago perhaps he's spent that by now. Speaking to the Guardian in January, Finlay said he'd paid 'a nice but not huge' sum for the project, which he hoped would be filled with 'wicked story after story ...and sex'.

Sadly for Transworld, the release of Ross's book, ironically titled Why Do I Say These Things?, pretty much coincided with his little faux pas, and even his supposedly large and loyal fan base appears not to want the book in vast numbers. This week, it dropped out of both the BookScan Top 50 and the Bookscan Top 20 Hardback Non-Fiction listing, having just made the number 20 slot last week (14 November), with sales of 5,250 copies - fewer than Dawn French (34,174), fewer than Paul O'Grady (30,156), fewer than Julie Walters (17,171), fewer even than Cliff (7,016), about whom Ross would doubtless like to make a few lewd remarks. You have to dig to find it on Amazon, where it can be bought for £9.49 - or for £39.99 for 'brand new, never read, signed on inside page'. Richard & Judy will not be delivering a last-minute boost to sales - Wossy hasn't made it into their Christmas stocking.

O'Grady is expected to be the celebrity bestseller of Christmas '08, so it's not all gloom and doom out at Ealing. And while Other Publishers will surely enjoy a momentary sense of schadenfreude, they are all too familiar with the perils of celebrity publishing to revel in another's misfortune. Still, Hodder must be experiencing a certain frisson: after all, having made Brand's My Booky Wook a runaway bestseller last Christmas, they thought they had the new Russell Brand in the bag - but he was lured to HarperCollins for loads more money in what was probably Jane Friedman's last deal.

Leaving aside the wider question of what the BBC, a supposed public-service broadcaster, these days imagines its mandate to be (to bring in viewers whatever the cost as opposed to making worthwhile programmes, it would appear) and whether Ross in general or Sachsgate in particular are funny (not any more and no, seems to be the consensus even among those who don't read the Daily Mail), there remains the unedifying subject of celebrity publishing - itself driven by the BBC among other channels. For all I know, publishers are at this moment talking to John Sergeant about a book on his Strictly Come Dancing experience, an issue that has prompted 170,000 postings on the Corporation's message board - more than for Ross, more apparently than for the London bombings. As Leonard Cohen once sang, 'it's come to this - and isn't it a long way down'.

In a sense, once-serious publishers are behaving just like the BBC: paying vast sums for so-called talent, much of it 'made' by television via endless reality TV shows, in order to compete in the ratings equivalent of bestsellers and market share with those publishers whose raison d'etre is celeb crap and who (to be fair) know how to do it well and don't pretend it's something other. The Christmas bestseller, almost inevitably a so-called celebrity title (Peter Kay in 2006, the aforementioned Brand last year), is rather like the Christmas No 1 single in the days of Top of the Pops. Only rather more costly when it fails to chart. Much has been debased in the process, not least biography itself. Celebrity is now an entirely pejorative term, and should be reserved for WAGs and the likes of Jade and Chantelle and Kerry Katona. But the opprobrium that now surrounds these sorts of titles has, to a certain degree at least, infected the reception of memoirs by those individuals with careers behind (and in front) of them and a genuine story to tell - not least because the talented and the talentless get lumped together in those portmanteau book reviews of which the nationals are so fond.

These days, a book contract seems to offer assurance that one has arrived; that one matters. Which means that every two-bit, famous-for-15-seconds-so-called celebrity has a lawyer out there trying to get some gullible publisher to stump up a six- or seven-figure sum for some paltry offering. And in publishing houses across London, starry-eyed editors can't wait to be on first-name terms with someone from the telly. Because they are often so in thrall to these so-called stars, neither the brain or the red pen are properly engaged (also the problem with the Radio 2 producer of The Russell Brand Show), resulting in a rag-bag of nonsense destined in no time at all for the knacker's yard of publishing. In this, as in so many depressing statistics, Britain leads the world. A visit to a US bookshop offers a far more uplifting experience than is available here (pace James Daunt).

Perhaps the recession will change all that - certainly publishers are claiming to be looking much harder at such projects, as at all others. Meanwhile, book publicists are breathing sighs of relief that, come January, Wossy will be back on the box. It makes one long for the 1970s, when those who went on Parkinson did so because they were happy to entertain us and knew they'd get the chance to answer some intelligent questions - and in the process sell a few books. These days, the presenter's the star ...so-called.