That’s Unseemly: Britney Spears To Save Books

The pop star wants to write a memoir about it all, and has invited the top publishers in the land to fly to L.A. to meet with her about it.

Last Updated: February 12, 2009 @ 8:06 AM

If Britney Spears can save herself, perhaps she can save publishing too.

The star has publicly cleaned up her act since her break with reality and bizarre public behavior in recent years. She even made a hit record.

Now the pop star wants to write a memoir about it all, and has invited the top publishers in the land to fly to L.A. to meet with her about it.

Talk about a beauty contest. Coming just a day after the bloodbath at HarperCollins that suggested that book-land is on the ropes, publishers were invited to see if publishing has a future star in Britney. 

Top editors, including Dutton’s Brian Tartt, Spiegel & Grau’s Julie Grau and HarperCollins’ own Carrie Kania, will be taking meetings with Spears and her agent, William Morris’ Mel Berger. Morris co-head Jennifer Rudolph Walsh is said to be the chaperone.

Not that long ago this kind of beauty contest, in which editors introduced themselves and outlined their “publishing programs” to big names who rarely had anything resembling a book proposal on paper, was common. 

That’s how publishers bought books from both Clintons, for example, as well as most Hollywood stars. 

But in a business that is reeling from poor sales and cuts, a high-ticket celebrity auction seems unseemly, and worse — it appeals to the very real fears of many in book-land that amid cuts in personnel and lists, only the sure-fire, big ticket, lowest-common-denominator bestsellers will survive.

And maybe that’s right.

But for the record: The mulching machines are full of celeb-bios gone wrong, even in more freespending times.  Jay Leno’s “Leading with My Chin” is a famous disaster. Ted Turner’s “Call Me Ted”  — less a business book than a wacky who-am-I? – has been at best a disappointment.

And now, when publishers are having trouble selling even backlist paperbacks, do they really think the public will cough up $25 to read what, let’s face it, they’ve either already read ad nauseum on blogs and heard on talk shows?

Obviously, Random House is among the publishers that thinks celebrity bios are the way to go. The publisher paid $2 million for Diane Keaton’s book last week (also repped by William Morris), but that at least has a deeper story:  Keaton will not just tell Warren-and-me tales, but will focus on her relationship with her mother, who is dying of Alzheimers, according to the press release.

HarperCollins is betting on celebrities, too, with a reported $2 million paid to comedian Sarah Silverman. And Little, Brown last fall paid a reported $6 million to Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey, an admittedly classy “get,” especially in those Palin-esque days.

But what, if anything, will these people have to say?   Aside from Fey and Silverman, who have been writing their own material for years, can these “authors” write?  (And who will be Spears ghost writer?) Then, the disturbing question: Will anybody care? And the more disturbing answer: They actually might.

To justify an advance in the millions, publishers have to sell hundreds of thousands of books, and that’s a lot in any market. In this one, it seems near-impossible.

But the publishing cycle is such that money spent today is a bet on what the market will want 12 or 18  or 24 months from now

. Are publishers being optimistic that this recession will be over by then so that people will be shopping again?

I worry that  the truth is a much much darker historical one:  that in a deep and ongoing recession, they’re betting that flat-out mindless entertainment is the only  thing that sells.