Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Let no one say that the British book business has lost the knack of laughing at itself. The next six weeks or so will blow in an autumn windfall of celebrity memoirs, some of which have cost a fortune in return for the short and simple annals of barely-adult lives. Among the C-list screeds, I'm a Celebrity... victor Kerry Katona offers her confessions. Her title? Too Much Too Young. You might, in due course, find those words inscribed on the tombstones of many foolhardy publishers.

If you fail to fancy Kerry, how about Jack Osbourne, that rising scion of a noble house? Jack promises us the distilled wisdom of 21 Years Gone. Meanwhile, Celebrity Big Brother creation Chantelle Houghton will be Living the Dream thanks to a fantasy cheque from Random House, and HarperCollins has just signed Pete Bennett, the Tourette's-afflicted winner of the latest BB marathon. Billie Piper, who has proper talent if not long years to share, will survey her pre- and post-Doctoral career in October. One can see the point of that. When it comes to morning radio's ubiquitous motormouth and The Gospel According to Chris Moyles - another Random House extravaganza - then, given the title, thoughts of extra-judicial crucifixion do spring to mind.

Triggered by the success of Katie "Jordan" Price's excursions into print, the pursuit of the supermarket book-buyer has brought on another bout of celebrity madness among chequebook-waving publishers. Indeed, such is the lure of the bookshelf in the aisles that when mass-market imprints want to hire a commissioning editor these days, they nip out and pick one up from Tesco. But will these top-dollar deals from the School of Jordan be shrewd investments for the buyers, or just enormous boobs? Alas, we can't even call a premium-rate line to cast our vote.

There is a rational way to manage celebrity volumes: good timing (on the upward rather than downward curve), a sensibly priced acquisition, a solid fan-base, a strong narrative, a personality that booksellers and readers will warm to long after the splashy serialisation. Yet this season's crazy deals suggest that some editors have truly lost the plot. Did Little, Brown really pay, as credible sources maintain, a cool million for Rupert Everett's star-struck reminiscences, Red Carpets and other Banana Skins? If so, that title might, like Katona's, prove a touch too prophetic for comfort. Is the evergreen appeal of Terry Wogan fresh enough to justify the stupendous advance that makes his title - Mustn't Grumble - the understatement of the publishing year? And will Bloomsbury, a rare independent firm in this arena of celeb-hungry conglomerates, carry on playing the fame game so generously if My Take by (Take That founder) Gary Barlow fails to earn its keep and reach No 1?

What's certain is that the absurdly steep cost of some of this autumn's celebrity yarns will far exceed the probable revenues. As a result, plenty of genuine books by genuine writers will never achieve the precious "positional good" of a place on the list of a major publisher with marketing clout. But if you dare suggest that the book trade should seek out and support literary ability rather than chucking suitcases of extra cash at already pampered millionaires, an assortment of wealthy populists will get very hot under their smartly tailored collars and call you an "elitist".

This slur, as slurs often do, neatly upends the truth. In modern Britain, celeb culture acts as a focal point of power and privilege; the new elite who service and profit from it are denying us other voices and choices. Starve the gifted poor; throw money at the undeserving rich; and vilify anyone who points out the emperor's curious lack of clothes. Celebrity publishing belongs to the realm of fairy tales in more ways than one.