The rise and rise of celebrity publishing

The trend towards celebrity books that are bought but unread is sheer bliss for publishers
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Shortly after his first book was accepted for publication, the comedian Ricky Gervais told a rather good joke against himself. He had been trying to get the book published for six years, he said, but no one had answered the door. Then he tried knocking on it with four Baftas in his hand; the effect had been instant and miraculous.

The past year has had its share of good things - a great new Philip Roth, a Bob Dylan memoir that exceeded the highest expectations, a brilliant comic masterpiece in Rich Hall's Otis Lee Crenshaw: I Blame Society - but it is perhaps that little insight from the creator of The Office which best encapsulates the spirit of our literary times as we enter 2005.

The book to which Gervais was referring was Flanimals, a collection of 35 cartoon creatures for children. With names like The Underblenge, Munty Flumble, The Grundit, they have weird habits which are summarised in brief, zany captions.

These kinds of nonsensical creations, the knackered descendants of great absurdist work from Lear, Gorey, Nash and Milligan, are much more difficult to write and draw than most people think, and the publishers who turned down Gervais's cartoons were probably right. His pictures and jokes are the sort of doodling work which is privately amusing but which would not, under normal circumstances, be original enough to merit publication.

These circumstances, as the publisher who answered the knock of those four Baftas rightly surmised, were far from normal. Propelled by Gervais's reputation as one of the funniest men to appear on television, Flanimals soared up the bestseller list and was the Christmas number one, having sold more than 200,000 copies. The vast majority of buyers, booksellers reported, were adult fans who were buying the book for themselves.

It would be silly and snobbish to wring one's hands every time a mediocre book found success because its author was famous. Those who bought Gervais's book were not spending money that they would otherwise have spent on the latest novel from AL Kennedy or David Mitchell - indeed, because Flanimals is published by the impeccably serious house of Faber, one could argue that the profits from its sales might well help less starry, literary authors to be published.

But, looking down the list of the year's bestsellers, it is difficult not to conclude that the act of reading itself is in the process of being changed. Alan Titchmarsh, Jordan, Ewan McGregor, Robbie Williams, Gazza, Trinny and Susannah: these are among the year's most profitable authors and the sales of their books have little or nothing to do with the quality of content.

Reading, of course, is a complex business and often rather less pure than some would like to think. We read to be able to show off at dinner parties, or to make ourselves feel as if we are on the cultural cutting edge, or to provide some of the things - action, laughter, sex, the possibility of change - that may be lacking in our real lives.

But however base the motives for reading a book, however transitory the hit that it provides, the experience is an intimate one; it tangles with our inner lives. By contrast, the books which have turned so many of the large bookshops into museums to contemporary celebrityhood are as exterior as the author photographs on their covers. The words they contain are, in a sense, the least important part of the product and, this is why the fact that they may have been written by a ghostwriter matters little to most buyers.

It is the object itself that matters - the book that represents in a tangible form the personality whose name it bears. The very act of leaving it on a coffee table or on a bedside table establishes the illusion of one-to-one contact with a famous person, perhaps with fame itself.

This trend towards books that are bought but unread is sheer bliss for the publishing business. Most editors fantasise about acquiring projects that require little or no reading; sales managers dream of the title that can be marketed with the invocation of a single, magical name, that has none of those complexities and subtleties that can be so difficult to summarise.

So the big money and the entrepreneurial push go behind these Flanimal-like creations which are half-book, half-celebrity memento. In the modern publishing business, where displays in the front of the big bookshops are bought by the big conglomerates and where investment goes on the sure-fire titles with a famous name attached, their dominance is assured.

The problem is that something has to give. When publishers and booksellers discover that there is easy money to be made from the snappily packaged, unread works of celebrities, the books that lose out are those - both popular and literary - which demand editing, and imaginative marketing based on content rather than the name on the cover.

More seriously, perhaps, reading itself becomes infected. The joyous business of immersing oneself in the prose, ideas and stories of someone who may not even have appeared on television may soon begin to seem rather too much like hard work, faintly futile and distinctly old-fashioned.