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Celebrity Imprints: What Publishing Can Learn From James Frey, Chelsea Handler and Eli Roth

11/16/2010 04:57 pm 16:57:12 | Updated May 25, 2011

A few years ago, I was watching television when I saw an advertisement for a new horror movie. There was something different about this ad, however--it used a tactic I hadn't seen very often in film advertising. The film was called "Cabin Fever", and the ad proudly trumpeted a laudatory quote from Oscar-winning "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson. In addition, in Premiere Magazine, Quentin Tarantino called the film's director, Eli Roth, "The Future of Horror" and promoted Roth's second film, "Hostel," with the tagline 'Quentin Tarantino Presents.' "Cabin Fever," made for a paltry $1.5 million, went on to gross over $33,000,000 worldwide. Eli Roth went on to direct the successful "Hostel" series, and recently lent his own support to the horror film "The Last Exorcism," which opened #1 at the box office. Jackson and Tarantino passed their considerable clout along to the novice Roth, who then was able to use his name to promote other auteurs.

(Update: after reading this article, Eli Roth tweeted me, saying his reason for seeing the Sam Raimi-directed horror classic "Evil Dead" was Stephen King's endorsement, and how much Jackson's quote meant to him)

So what do Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth have to do with book publishing? Simple--I see much of what these three accomplished in what James Frey and Chelsea Handler are doing with their own publishing ventures--for good and bad.

It's no secret these days that it's getting harder and harder to gain attention for books. Convincing readers to pay $25 for a debut novel, without a massive marketing campaign, is just slightly harder than getting anyone to see that new Nicolas Cage movie. One tried-and-true tactic to help increase awareness of a book is to solicit blurbs from noteworthy writers. Blurbs have been a longstanding tradition in bookselling. Getting an A-list author to endorse a newbie's book helps build buzz, both on the retailing and consumer side. I received numerous emails after the release of my debut novel, The Mark, in which readers told me they picked up the book after seeing that one of their favorite authors had generously endorsed it. Which brings me to Frey.

New York Magazine's expose into Frey's fiction factory Full Fathom Five was eye-opening, mainly in the iron maiden contracts that left the ghostwriters (hungry and naive MFA students) taking pennies up front without any recourse into being guaranteed a fair shake of future proceeds. Frey's first sale, the YA series beginning with I Am Number Four, hit the New York Times bestseller list, has been sold into over 40 territories, and is a major motion picture scheduled to be released this Spring. All told, it's conceivable that author proceeds from the series will reach well into the seven figures. All this without Frey's name on the cover, or much publicity beyond the initial sale. Yet the buzz surrounding the book (disclosure: I wrote a positive review of I Am Number Four for Publishers Lunch) propelled it onto bestseller lists. It is clear that, despite one's hesitations about Frey as ethical writer or publisher, Frey the businessmen has a golden touch.

News has also come out of Grand Central Publishing that pop culture princess Chelsea Handler has agreed to start an eponymous imprint, publishing books written by her friends, family and pets. While people might not flock to a book by Chelsea's extended family on their own, having the #1 bestseller's name on the spine and perhaps cover will entice her fans to pick up the books, regardless of whether the authors has two or four legs.

Having a known author's name on a book cover with an endorsement is worth a tremendous amount when it comes to pushing an unknown quantity. While Frey is hardly known as a Young Adult behemoth, tthe buzz surrounding the sale of I Am Number Four certainly helped give it exposure that a traditional debut novel would not have received. While it can certainly be argued that Frey is preying on the dreams and lack of business acumen of new writers, all things being equal these books will likely receive a greater push, and greater consumer recognition, than your average novel. If the contracts were fair--obviously a major sticking point since they most decidedly are not--being taken under the wing by an inarguably successful writer like Frey would be a terrific boon to a young writer's career. If an author like Jobie Hughes, I Am Number Four's unofficial official ghostwriter, did receive as promised 30-40% of the proceeds, it could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars and, possibly more important, a long term career.

There is a precedent in publishing: such as Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell series (written by the pseudonymous David Michaels, several of which were penned by crime fiction veteran Raymond Benson). To be honest, I'm surprised more houses don't consider publishing more books along those lines, with star authors more aggressively endorsing up-and-comers via their own imprints or as a 'Presenter,' similar to the way Tarantino 'presented' movies: Nicholas Sparks Presents. Janet Evanovich Presents. James Patterson presents. There could certainly be a cynical reaction to this--but cynicism does not sell books. And for my money, anything a publisher can ethically do to get a good book into the hands of readers is a good thing.

For genre authors especially this seems like a ripe opportunity to introduce new authors with the backing of both a major publishing house and a true endorsement/push from established writers. This happens all the time in other areas of the entertainment industry. Would 50 Cent have exploded onto the music scene had he not been discovered and shepherded to Interscope by Eminem?

While Eli Roth is a talented filmmaker in the horror genre, it's safe to say his career trajectory would not have accelerated as quickly without endorsements from titans like Jackson and Tarantino. And while the new ventures by Frey and Handler are not the ideal way to introduce new writers into the mainstream, I do believe they may be harbingers of what perhaps should have already happened but has yet to be fully implemented: imprints or lines endorsed or presented by major writers, used primarily to introduce new talent in a difficult marketplace. Yes, those star authors would surely receive a piece of the profits--hopefully not as much as Frey is taking--but the impact, both commercial and financial, for new writers could be considerable. We should use those models as a jumping off point.

Publishing must find new ways to shed light on talented writers. And often the strongest light can emanate from writers whose stars already shine bright.

em>JASON PINTER is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), and is an agent with the Waxman Literary Agency. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in the summer of 2011. Visit him at www.jasonpinter.com or follow him on Twitter.