At BookBrunch blog*, Nicholas Clee, former Editor of the Bookseller, draws attention to an article he wrote in the New Statesman in the wake of the just-finished London Book Fair. He says the article "has a somewhat misleading headline: I do not think that celebrities have been the prime causes of anything." The article's title is "How celebrities saved, and then killed, the book trade".
Mr Clee then provides a quote from the article, which I assume means that he believes it to be the main message: "However, these trends are not the fault of the celebs, or of Richard and Judy. They are the consequence of the conglomeration in publishing and bookselling; of the proliferation of media; and of the undermining of a cultural consensus that could tolerate, without embarrassment, such concepts as literary excellence."
Actually I think they are mostly if not entirely to do with readers and what they are prepared to pay their money for. The full New Statesman article describes how, in Mr Clee's belief, celebrities and 'Richard and Judy' have provided artificial but short-lived bursts of life to the publishing industry – but what happens next? He describes how hard it is for an author to get published these days – authors who have already published several books can't even get a look-in with their new work, or if an editor likes a title, it will not get approved by the sales and marketing departments. Online retailers (mainly Amazon) and digital forms of content (mainly e-readers at the moment) are even bigger threats to the industry, says Mr Clee.
While I don't disagree with Mr Clee's analysis of the business model of publishers, I don't agree with him that celebrities alone are providing the "artificial" boost, and I don't agree that the boost is short-lived (although unfortunately, the Richard and Judy [a.k.a. Oprah] effect, which emphatically was not about celebrities or marketing budgets but about what someone thought was a good book when she'd read it, does seem to be on the wane). There will always be "celebrity authors" who are not authors because they are celebrities in the sense of Jordan, Victoria Beckham, Naomi Campbell and their international equivalents, but because they are James Patterson, Danielle Steel, the ghost (in both senses of the word) of Catherine Cookson, Dan Brown, Nora Roberts, Wilbur Smith, etc. (Between them, these mega-authors produce more than enough for one person to read in a year, if anyone wanted to exist entirely on such a diet.) These authors are huge sellers because their books are popular with readers – they are authors who are only famous for being authors. I don't see this category drying up any time soon, any more than I believe that the appetite for the next Miley Cyrus, Zak Ephron, Russell Brand et al. will end (most of these books will be actually written by jobbing authors, so they at least keep some scribblers on a payroll, even if they have no "literary merit").
At the core of these analyses is the fact that not many people buy much of the great bulk of literary fiction or non-fiction. They probably never did. Cultural standards have indeed changed due to mass media and lowest-common-denominators, as Mr Clee writes, but it is not possible to infer from that, that there was a time where all the people who are now reading "popular" TV- and celebrity-inspired books used to read literature. In fact I don't think it is the case. They were probably all listening to the "wireless" ;-).
The book publishing industry as a whole is not a mega-profit-making industry. There are a very few giants, but the rest do not make vast profits or even in many cases small profits. These companies know what books will sell, roughly how many copies, how to sell those copies. It does not make sense to "blame" them for not publishing literary works rather than the books that people actually buy. Yes, a cheap, highly promoted "book of the week" offer will produce a spike in sales, but those customers would not have purchased a highbrow work of literature instead if the deal had not been offered to them.
What will happen is some kind of hybrid, via print on demand or digital formats (sometimes "published" by the authors themselves); and the internet will become increasingly relevant in targeting books to readers (perhaps with libraries as the middle-men rather than publishers?). Some "publishers as we now know them" will adapt and survive, some won't – because "long tail" readerships are individually small, and there are a heck of a lot of authors producing all and any kind of material for them to choose from. Readers will certainly benefit from these technologies, but it is very tough for authors in this intermediate but not steady-state, in which publishers aren't publishing their books and if they do it themselves, they aren't going to find a large market other than in exceptional cases (such as the title selected for publication by Harper Collins's Avon imprint via its Authonomy scheme, which turned out to have been previously self-published and marketed very effectively on Authonomy by Steven Dunne, the author – read all about it here.).
*If you click on the link you might get a message stating "you are not allowed to view the blog. You will have to be a member first" (even if you are a member and signed-in). In that event, go to Bookbrunch main page, click on the blog tag, and look for posts on 24 April. What a palaver.