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Publishers regret high risk celebrity memoirs

18 December 2006

This autumn celebrity books have been hot news in the British publishing world. Five stars had advances of over £1million - TV personality Terry Wogan, Big Brother winner Pete Bennett, singer Gary Barlow, actor Rupert Everett and comedian Peter Kay. Out of all of these the only one who is topping the charts is Peter Kay, whose The Sound of Laughter is reckoned by Random House to have sold a million copies to date.

As Ben Macintyre noted recently in The Times: 'In one sense, the market for celebrity autobiography reflects the changing economics of book publishing. With the end of the net book agreement in 1995, books could be sold in volume in supermarkets at the lowest prices. People who might not often go into a bookshop began buying books as part of the groceries. Tesco and Asda are now the biggest booksellers in Britain... in fact the entire book market may be expanding, thanks to the intensely fertile collision of television celebrity and literature.'

The problem is that the competition amongst publishers for these big celebrity memoirs is ferocious, meaning that they carry a high price tag. Public taste is hard to fathom, though, because many of the Christmas book-buyers only buy books once a year. The publisher Bloomsbury's recent alarming profits warning, bringing the anticipated figure down from £20m ($39m) to around £5m ($9.76m), is partly being blamed on the big price tags attached to books by Glen Barlow and David Blunkett. These were part of a recent buying spree intended to reduce the house's reliance on Harry Potter.

Out of the 60 celebrity memoirs slogging it out in the shops this year, just how do you tell which books are going to emerge as the winners? You might have thought that the 'national treasure' appeal of Wogan would be irresistible for an older generation, and Gary Barlow spot-on for younger buyers, but you would have been wrong. And come the New Year, publishers will be counting the cost of playing celebrity publishing roulette. Ghost-writers profit and the stars themselves are happy to add to their millions. The rest of us just wish that the money was being invested in books with a more enduring appeal, written by authors with ongoing writing careers.