The name game in children's books

Publishing: What's heavenly for profits is a celebrity who writes a book for children.


Last week, television news personality Maria Shriver made book-publishing history.

"What's Heaven?" (Golden Books/St. Martin's Press, $15), Shriver's gentle commentary on death, became the first children's book since the heyday of Dr. Seuss in the early 1960s to crack the New York Times Top 10 best-seller list. The author estimates that 300,000 copies have been sold.

The astounding success of "What's Heaven?" would be notable on its own. But because its author is a member of the Kennedy clan and the photogenic wife of movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, it also strongly supports a recent book industry philosophy -- that any book by a celebrity, even a children's book, can move lots of copies in star-struck America.

"I can say that a celebrity's name on the dust cover can represent a greater than 50 percent boost in sales potential, easily," says Mike Emmerich, a senior editor at Taylor Publishing Co. "The ones we do are usually autobiographies from athletes. Buyers, both parents and children, are drawn to them because they're written by somebody they've heard of."

So, from Jimmy Buffett to Jamie Lee Curtis, with Bill Cosby and Dr. Laura Schlessinger in between, the past three years have seen more celebrities signing contracts with major publishing houses to write children's books. Publishing industry analysts trace the trend to 1991, when

Sarah Ferguson, Britain's Duchess of York, wrote a series of "Budgie" children's books that were published by Simon & Schuster. The "Budgie" titles sold steadily, though not at best-selling rates. Still, Simon & Schuster made a tidy profit, and competing publishing houses took notice.

The subsequent flood of celebrity books for kids has mixed literary value. The "Budgie" books were undeniably awful and roundly panned by critics. Consumers, though, seemed to enjoy owning a piece of the duchess, if only in print. Titles by Cosby and Buffett, though, were much better.

But these stars got their books published, non-celebrity children's authors say, at the expense of "real" writers with quality stories to tell kids in print.

"It's very frustrating," says award-winning Fort Worth, Texas, author Judy Alter, whose latest children's book, "Extraordinary Women of the American West," will receive only limited shelf exposure in major chain stores. "My last kids' books are published by a place that sells directly to libraries, and hardly ever places them in Barnes & Noble. Yes, children's books written by celebrities sell better, and I think the reason is because moms and dads buy the books and kids themselves don't. Do you think kids really care who the Duchess of York is?"

It is widely believed -- with some justification, Emmerich says -- that the books get the celebrities' names, but not their words.

"Just about all these celebrity books are what you might call `co-authored,' " he says. "They'll sit down with a writer who might help them put in words what they want to say. The writer is usually credited, but not always."

Shriver says she didn't need any help.

"I write my own material for television anyway," said the star of "Dateline NBC." "Still, `What's Heaven?' was a two- or three-year process. I got the idea, then it took several drafts to get it right."

" `What's Heaven?' is, in fact, a very good book, says Alice Magnussen, a publishing industry analyst. "I bought one for my 9-year-old daughter, who's been asking about where people go when they die."

Magnussen predicts many more celebs will write children's books in the next few years: "Hillary Rodham Clinton would be a natural; so would Venus Williams, the tennis player, and Willie Nelson, the country singer. He looks like a nice, grandfatherly type."

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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