Every age gets the publishing industry it deserves, whether it’s Babylonian scribes etching the Epic of Gilgamesh into stone tablets, medieval scribes toiling away at illuminated manuscripts or Maxwell Perkins laboring over the sentences of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Which is why, I suppose, today we have imprints from the comedienne Chelsea Handler, the rapper 50 Cent (Handler’s erstwhile beau, but I wouldn’t read too much into it), the chef Anthony Bourdain, and actors Viggo Mortensen and Johnny Depp, not to mention mystery writer Dennis Lehane and former Men’s Health editor David Zinczenko.
All these are small imprints, usually folded into publishing conglomerates and producing only a few books each year—and always announcing the celebrity affiliation with unabashed pride of the sort that must make the wise old men of the publishing world, the two or three still left, cringe. All were founded in recent years, as the publishing industry has searched ever more desperately for a solution to its chronic, worsening woes. They suggest, to me at least, that the business of discovering, editing, publishing, and promoting a book has become little more than that—a business, on par with hawking energy drinks or endorsing restaurant chains. Yes, publishing has always been about making money. The rise of the celebrity imprint indicates that it is now about little more than that.
That the publishing world—buffeted by the forces of Amazon and apathy—has turned to celebrities for salvation is not surprising. Considering how much of a premium our society places on fame—independent of how that fame is achieved, regardless of whether it is deserving—it makes perfect sense that at HarperCollins someone said, “Hey, we should have that guy from Pirates of the Caribbean edit some books.”
The business of discovering, editing, publishing, and promoting a book has become little more than that—a business.
That guy—Depp—is apparently serious about his imprint, Infinitum Nihil, having recently published a long-lost novel by Woody Guthrie, House of Earth, with an introduction by the historian Douglas Brinkley, who is also publishing The Unraveled Tales of Bob Dylan with Depp. And Mortensen founded Perceval Press on his own—in some degree to publish his own works of photographs, but also as an outlet for what is all-too-readily dismissed by bigger publishing houses as "literary fiction," as well as works on history and art. Not too shabby, I think, for two guys who work in a town where anything more ponderous than a Rotten Tomatoes review is considered longform.
But I don’t want to give the impression of being an optimist. The landscape of celebrity publishing is a dreary one. I mean, can you imagine Bourdain—who has an imprint at Ecco—editing a book? I don’t want to get overly romantic, but editing and publishing were once the domain of men like Barney Rosset of Grove Press, who staked their reputations and livelihoods on the authors they published (in Rosset’s case, the supposedly pornographic works of D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller). This takes not only guts and brains but, very simply, a lot of time. Meanwhile, can you even imagine Bourdain sitting still for ten minutes before realizing that there is a shack in rural Maryland where he must absolutely try the spiced crab cakes? I imagine putting his name on a book—like Marilyn Hagerty’s Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 100 Reviews—is probably tantamount to endorsing a line of no-stick cookware. His name is his traction. He knows it, as does his marketing tribe.
You will forgive me for not being much of a fan of James Frey, he of the crack-addiction-that-wasn’t and Oprah apology. His Full Fathom Five (yes, the name is a reference to Shakespeare, though googling it will leave you wondering just what, if anything, Frey was thinking) is a children’s and young-adult imprint—but forgive me, again, if I keep my daughter on Dr. Seuss and Lois Lowry. An account of Frey’s imprint in New York magazine three years ago described the project as a “fiction factory” rife with product placement and movie-deal mania, all churned out by eager young MFAs. After making some noise with its sale of I Am Number Four to DreamWorks, Full Fathom Five has been pretty quiet ever since. Perhaps the best thing about the whole project is that Frey apparently sank his own money it.
Here we must acknowledge a basic truth: We all buy things because celebrities tell us to, whether it's Kim Kardashian swimwear or Kid Rock bourbon (for the record, I have bought neither). Books, these days, are no exception. And considering that Chelsea Handler sold perhaps 2 million copies of My Horizontal Life and Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, it is not unfair to think that she can sell the books of similar writers—that she has, in President Obama’s recent words, “juice.” So, for that matter, does Anthony Bourdain, whose Kitchen Confidential is actually worth reading—and which, in fact, has been purchased by at least a million people.
True, the literary musings of Handler may not be the talk of Brooklyn, but there’s a whole lotta country between Park Slope and the Berkeley Hills. And it is likely that the success of Handler’s book—and any future books she may select for publication, like the just-published surefire Pulitzer winner Man Up!: Tales of My Delusional Self Confidence, gives Grand Central Publishing the latitude to publish the literary fiction snobs like you and I covet, the kind of thing that will sell 50 copies in Brooklyn and another 12 in Austin.
Moreover, if urban literature is a genre—and it is—who better than 50 Cent to seek out those of worthy writing about it, to serve as a nexus for the publication of such titles as Harlem Heat and The Ski Mask Way? Same with Lehane, who is soon publishing Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street, a fine entry into the noir category. Celebrity imprints may announce nothing more than what was already announced by some D-lister hawking cleaning supplies on a late-night infomercials. We like celebrities, and we like to buy stuff. You don’t need a Harvard MBA to figure out the rest.
So maybe that is the most depressing aspect of this whole celebrity imprint business: not what it says about publishing, but what it says about ourselves. In their own crass, slick ways, these imprints are indicative of the cult of personality that grips our culture, the facile worship of figures who somehow escape the critical examination we reserve for other aspects of our lives. Of course Chelsea should have her own imprint. And so should Anthony. Not only Bourdain, but also Weiner. I hear he’s getting restless.