Joan Collins's publisher has given up on her writing. Glitzy authors, watch out. Nicholas Clee reports
All the embarrassing mechanics of producing a celebrity novel are being exposed this week in a New York courtroom. Random House is suing Joan Collins for the return of $1.2m it paid her as part of a two-book contract, claiming that the fiction she produced was "fragmented and implausible". Collins is countersuing: she says she delivered work in good faith. She wants the balance of the advance still owing to her: $3.6m, she says.

The story behind the row isconvoluted. What it appears to boil down to is that Random House gave up on trying to get Collins's manuscripts into a publishable shape. Her American editor, Joni Evans, who had at first said of the actress, "I want her so badly I can almost taste it", found the taste going sour. "Joni said there were so many things wrong with the manuscript they couldn't even contemplate putting it right," Collins commented.

I interviewed Joan Collins before publication of her second novel, Love and Desire and Hate (1990). She was taking her writing seriously and eager to listen to advice. She expected to receive help from editors. Two years later, to her consternation, her editors at Random House abandoned her.

No one is now prepared to say openly that Random House made a huge mistake in the first place. But clearly the company decided that the two novels, provisionally titled Hell Hath No Fury and The Ruling Passion, would not be worth the effort that would have to be expended on them. The author's celebrity, after the Dynasty decade, when Collins's star had perhaps waned a little, would not be guaranteed to lure enough people in to bookshops.

The Random House/Collins deal, signed in 1990, marks the end of an era. Joan Collins was the personification of the cult of glamour that was so in vogue in the 1980s. In 1987, Century paid pounds 700,000 for her first novel, Prime Time. It and Love and Desire and Hate were both bestsellers, albeit not on quite the scale that their publishers hoped. In the Nineties, glitzy authors' sales have been slipping. We are now in the Mary Wesley and Joanna Trollope era of Aga sagas. But the Collins battle does not signal the end of the celebrity novelist.

The conglomerates that dominate publishing are still greedy for big names. Unfortunately, there are not enough authors with the required cachet; new stars have to be found. Hence the signing up of actors, models and comedians.

There are three kinds of celebrity novelists. There are those who can write, like Stephen Fry. There are those who need a bit of help, like Joan Collins. And there are those whose contributions could hardly be described as writing at all.

The novelists in the first category stand the best chance of success. Tom Weldon is publisher at Heinemann, which has brought out novels by Stephen Fry, Adrian Edmondson and Barry Humphries; the firm is about to publish Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller, submitted, so the story goes, under a pseudonym. "I want to do books by people who are real writers," Weldon says. "In the past 10 to 15 years, a lot of gifted people have gone into comedy, and there is a pool of interesting talent."

The second category, which includes William Shatner and Britt Ekland, is producing an increasing wariness in the business. A good deal of editorial time is required. Publicity costs are high - and authors can be demanding. One American writer insisted on undertaking his UK tour in a Lear jet. An American actress, waiting to be interviewed in aTV studio, decided she wanted a hard-boiled egg. When it was brought to her, she looked at it in horror. "But it's not peeled," she exclaimed.

The third category reached its apogee a couple of years ago with the novels of Ivana Trump (For Love Alone) and Naomi Campbell, whose book, Swan, was written by an editor and author called Caroline Upcher and put out under the supermodel's name. The project was ridiculed, particularly for the claim that, while Campbell did not write the novel, she was "very much the author".

Swan was a success. Heinemann paid pounds 100,000 for world rights, and earned back the advance in international sales even before the novel sold 30,000 hardback copies and 80,000 paperbacks. Tom Weldon was in charge of Swan. "It was a one-off, and was great fun to do," he says. "People were very pompous about it."

Still, he does not think he or other publishers are likely to sign up many similar titles in the near future. "Everyone is much warier now. You can do this kind of book once - after that it becomes a bit boring."

Celebrity novelists

Paula Yates, TV presenter

Nine books, including Paula Yates - The Autobiography, published last October, a novel, Wakey Wakey, coming out in March. Advance from Little, Brown for The Autobiography, pounds 150,000.

Naomi Campbell, supermodel

Swan, 1994.

Rumoured advance from Heinemann, pounds 100,000.

Ivana Trump, celebrity spouse

Three novels, including For Love Alone, May 1992 (out of print) and Free to Love, October 1993.

Rumoured advance from Century for three novels, pounds 2m.

Jill Gascoine, actress

Addicted, October 1994;

Lilian, December 1995.

Advance from Doubleday for Addicted, pounds 40,000.

William Shatner, actor

Tek Secret, 1994.

Advance from Ace/Putnam, pounds 500,000.

Martina Navratilova, tennis player

Total Zone, 1994.

Rumoured advance from Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 250,000.

Robert Newman, comedian

Dependence Day, 1994.

Rumoured advance from Century, pounds 100,000.

Edwina Currie, politician

A Parliamentary Affair, February 1994; A Woman's Place, January 1996.

Advance from Hodder & Stoughton for A Parliamentary Affair pounds 100,000.