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Commercial Success VS Artistic Value

Increasingly, celebrities and YouTube stars are getting lucrative book deals across the world. Think of any famous teenager and, more likely than not, they have a book out or in the works. Zoe Sugg, a YouTube celebrity, had the fastest-selling book of 2014 with Girl Online, which also spent some time on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Some see this as a threat to “great literature” and sophisticated art in general. How are booksellers meant to react to this trend? Are they to pay more attention to skilled debut novelists, or the latest’s works by famous YouTubers? The opinions across the book publishing world are divided.

According to Jon Riley, the editor-in-chief at Quercus imprint riverrun (in an interview with Publishing Perspectives), “the market is so competitive that literary titles have to compensate for the attention of sales, marketing, publicity people-and a pre-publication response from a limited number of retailers-with the most obviously commercial fiction and nonfiction titles”. In other words, it’s almost like classical music making way to pop. Yet, not everyone sees it this way.

Simon Prosser, editorial director of Penguin Random House’s Hamish Hamilton (in an interview with Publishing Perspectives), thinks that it’s “a great time for literary fiction”, as “publishing and bookselling together form a highly mixed ecosystem”. He dismisses worries about celebrities, as he believes that “they have been given book deals pretty much since the dawn of commercial publishing”, without negative repercussions on the quality of books across the publishing world.

There’s a third side to the debate as well: the pragmatic side. Suzie Dooré, publishing director at HarperCollins’s literary imprint, Borough Press (in an interview with Publishing Perspectives), says that she thinks “there’s room for everyone. I feel quite ‘live and let live’ about it. If enough people want to read a novel by a celebrity, then it’s a good business decision to publish it. I don’t believe it takes shelf space away from literary fiction. They are different areas of the market.”

This approach seems to make a lot of sense. There has always been demand for books by celebrities, and some have even been positively received by critics at large (like Girl Online, for that matter). Their existence doesn’t really threaten traditional books by “serious” authors, as readers aren’t likely to abandon them altogether.

Source: “Literary Debate: Commercial Success vs. Artistic Value”, Roger Tagholm, Publishing Perspective, Spring 2017, p.15


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