LONDON — The crowd at the annual Crime Thriller Awards here some months back was happily basking in mutual congratulation when the writer Lynda La Plante introduced an unexpected note of discord. Onstage to receive an honor, La Plante took the opportunity to denounce the British publishing industry, accusing it of spending too much time and money on inane memoirs by television celebrities.
“Publishers, stop spending your millions on this tripe!” she scolded, as the publishers in the audience — some of whom have indeed spent millions of pounds on such books — shifted uncomfortably in their seats. “The publishing industry is going to implode.”
La Plante had identified one of the strongest, and most curious, trends in British publishing in the last five years. Glance at any hardcover nonfiction best-seller list here, and it is impossible to miss. Unlike such lists in the United States, which tend to be mixed bags heavy on political polemic, popular sociology and inspirational memoir, the British lists are dominated by one kind of book alone, the celebrity autobiography.
These are not just the old-fashioned kind of celebrities. They are celebrities in a more democratic sense, if you use the word to mean “anyone who has ever been on television.” They are reality show contestants, reality show hosts and people who have appeared, either as hosts or guests, on panel shows.
At Number 1 recently on The Sunday Times of London’s list was a book by Chris Evans, a broadcaster known for his drunken antics and for being formerly married to the actress Billie Piper. At Number 3 was one by the members of a boy band that came in second on “The X Factor” talent search show in 2008. And the Number 5 book describes how two cheeky lads from Newcastle scaled the ladder of fame to become hosts of “Britain’s Got Talent.”
“Celebrity now embraces everyone from whoever’s been on ‘The X Factor’ to Nelson Mandela,” said Liz Thomson, co-editor of Bookbrunch.co.uk, an online news and information service about the book industry. She pointed glumly to a help-wanted ad posted by the Ebury Press looking for a commissioning editor who need not have publishing experience, but who must be “fully engaged with today’s popular culture from the biggest celebrities to rooting out less obvious talent, be it on TV, online or in the press.”
Why is this? Is the British public really this shallow? Does it really want to explore the life journey of, say, Chantelle Houghton, now 26, a contestant on “Celebrity Big Brother” in 2006 who was reportedly paid 300,000 pounds for a memoir that came out five months later, “Living the Dream”? (Actually, no: That book tanked.)
“Frankly, it’s a somewhat bizarre phenomenon, but it’s a sign of the age we live in,” said Philip Stone, the charts editor of the trade magazine The Bookseller.
The trend appears to have begun when Katie Price, a large-chested former topless model also known as Jordan, had a runaway bestseller with her first autobiography, “Being Jordan,” in 2004. Undaunted by unfavorable reviews — in The Observer of London, Stephen Bayley called “Being Jordan” a book of “hallucinatory and compelling awfulness” — Price, 31, has gone on to produce two sequels.
In an ancillary development, Price has also forged the path for a number of celebrated women who have signed lucrative fiction deals. Price’s first novel, “Crystal,” sold more copies, the British newspapers reported, than the six books on that year’s Booker Prize shortlist combined. (She is also the author of a series of children’s books about ponies.)
But publishers warn that the trend may well have reached a saturation point.
“Maybe we’re running out of celebrities, or perhaps some of them are running out of new things to say about themselves,” Tom Weldon, deputy chief executive of Penguin UK, told The Telegraph recently.
Though the books are still outselling other nonfiction hardcovers, they are selling far fewer copies now than they did a year ago.
Book sales overall decreased slightly in Britain last year. While fiction thrived, sales of memoirs and biographies fell by 15 to 20 percent, badly burning many publishers.
“The entry costs for so-called celebrity memoirs are much higher than with anything else,” said Ian Drury, a literary agent at Sheil Land Associates, which represents the authors Susan Hill, Rose Tremain and Peter Ackroyd, among others. “It’s very easy to spend a million pounds on a three- or — God help you — two-book deal, and if none of them work, then you’ve wiped out the profitability of your business.”
“I can’t blame them for wanting to sign up celebrities to sell books or blame retailers for stocking them,” Stone said of book executives. “Publishers always say that the success of a celebrity memoir will bankroll books by debut authors. Whether that is true, I don’t know, but that’s what they say.”