Despite the myriad of novel challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, The Bookseller Children’s Conference continued as scheduled, albeit in virtual form. There was a wealth of discussion on diversity in children’s publishing, the impact of lockdown on sales and reading habits and the ways the industry must adapt to an ever-changing global market. The conversation surrounding the influence of celebrity authors in the children’s book market intersects with these broader issues.
Starting off the conference with incredible flair Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Penguin Random House’s US children’s division, affirmed the robustness of the children’s book market. Marcus noted that the continued growth in the children’s market is in part due to the focus on celebrity authored books.
Over the last decade, the children’s publishing industry has seen a leap both in the number of celebrity titles released and the sales these titles amass. In the last few years this trend has picked up speed with the likes of David Walliams, Tom Fletcher, David Baddiel and Paul McCartney all releasing numerous titles as well as Cat Deely and Kristen Bell joining the list with their recent releases.
The Bookseller’s charts & data analyst, Kiera O’Brien, gave an astounding overview of market data for 2019 as well as of pre- and post-lockdown sales. O’Brien recognised the significant role of celebrity authors with David Walliams once again ranking as the number one bestselling children’s fiction author. According to Nielsen BookScan, the top 5 celebrity authors sold 4.02 million books in 2019, equating to 16% of the volume and value of the top 100 children’s authors.
This trend will almost certainly continue to rise; however, the rise of celebrity children’s authors poses a set of new and interesting questions for the industry. Do they simply boost sales or are celebrity authors actually engaging a more diverse and otherwise excluded audience? Does the cult of celebrity push other authors out of the market?
There’s no denying that celebrity authors achieve greater outreach and create new readers as a result of their recognisable faces and pre-existing followers. They are able to attract readers intimidated by books and make reading seem more accessible. Whilst celebrities can have a hugely positive influence, publishers need to be cautious to avoid publishing books simply for their celebrity connection.
Concerns about the rise in celebrity children’s authors hit a high in late-2017 following the announcement of the 2018 World Book Day titles which included four celebrity authored books. The Bookseller’s Fiona Noble articulated the industry’s dilemma saying that ‘at best, celebrities can entice non-readers, at worst they undermine the craft of writing itself.’
When the children’s publishing industry is faced with the goal of diversifying both authorship and readership, publishers need to think carefully about how they utilise celebrity authors. It is crucial that they entice first-time readers and book-buyers, but it is also key that celebrity names don’t push other authors off the shelves.
Celebrities may succeed in diversifying readership and reaching marginalised groups, but they may also risk narrowing the diversity of children’s authors. We need to ensure that children don’t think you have to be ‘famous or pretty’ to be an author. The industry needs to support non-celebrity authors, foster new talent and promote a diversity of authors beyond the cult of celebrity.