Thursday, February 11, 2010

Polibrity Update: Scott Brown

Last month, I promised to occasionally provide a "polibrity update" on those figures who pretend to be politicians but who really only want the spotlight. Their heart is in celebrity culture. Sarah Palin of course represents this trend perhaps more than anyone.

But wait, a dark horse in the race! Yes, folks, Massachusetts' own Senator... oh god... newly elected Scott Brown has his eyes looking ahead. He has had a taste of celebrity. Like blood to a vampire, folks: he had one taste, and now it's all he thinks about.

The latest proof of this conversion to polibrity comes from our own hometown paper, the Boston Globe, where Matt Viser reports that Brown is going to start shopping around a book proposal. Why wouldn't he? This is a man who has seen things you can only imagine... including green rooms, limousines, he's even stood behind a podium with a number of, um, cameras and microphones pointed at him. He has spoken to big rooms full of mostly pasty and mildly sweaty white Republicans. He has seen things you wouldn't even know. He has to write a book.

As the kids used to say, I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

Viser does a nice job unpacking this phenomenon, quoting literary agent Howard Yoon of the Gail Ross Literary Agency in DC (who is *not* representing Brown, for the record): “For a lot of these politicians a book is a need-to-have . . . This is just one more thing in his portfolio that he and his advisers feel that he needs to have to be a respected politician.’’ That's obviously true, and Brown clearly has ambition. But is the order right here? It is if you consider the book will not be a political memoir alone, but rather an autobiography. No, seriously. Says Wiser of what the book may include: "a tumultuous childhood, with both parents married three times; sternly lectured by a judge at age 12 for shoplifting LPs including a Black Sabbath record; posing nude for Cosmopolitan magazine; and riding a wave of populist anger to snatch Edward M. Kennedy’s seat from the Democrats." This is not to show his knowledge of politics, but to provide a backstory for his celebrity profile.

Fear not, though, he will hire a writer to help. Wait, he can't write?! Oh no, he can, sure, he's just too busy. Says spokeswoman Gail Gitcho of Brown, quoted by Viser, "Senator Brown will work with a collaborator so he can continue to focus fully on his service to the people of Massachusetts, which is, and always will be, his first priority." News for Brown: voting against Craig Becker, a union attorney, for a position on the National Labor Relations Board is NOT voting in my interest, and a phonecall to your office today will confirm this point. And PS, you're getting a writer because you would probably struggle with a "tweet," much less a whole manuscript. Why would anyone believe you could write a book, but are just too busy?

As noted, Yoon is not the agent. Brown has retained Robert Barnett. Sound familiar? According to his bio on his firm's website,

Mr. Barnett is one of the premier authors' representatives in the world. His clients have included Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bob Woodward, Lynne Cheney, Alan Greenspan, James Patterson, Katharine Graham, Tim Russert, Stephen White, George Will, Art Buchwald, James Carville, Mary Matalin, William Bennett, Cokie Roberts, several former U.S. Secretaries of State, numerous U.S. Senators, Tony Blair of the United Kingdom, Queen Noor of Jordan, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and many others, including journalists, novelists, business leaders, public figures, politicians, and others.

Fascinating. This man does not discriminate. In fact, he is really driving the polibrity train! And I have to point out James Patterson on this list. A fascinating profile of him by Jonathan Mahler in the NY Times Magazine shows that this is not a human, but a walkin', talkin' brand. Mahler reports,

Patterson and his publisher, Little, Brown & Co., a division of the Hachette Book Group, have an unconventional relationship. In addition to his two editors, Patterson has three full-time Hachette employees (plus assistants) devoted exclusively to him: a so-called brand manager who shepherds Patterson’s adult books through the production process, a marketing director for his young-adult titles and a sales manager for all his books.

In addition, he has many folks helping him write these things. Again, Mahler,

TO MAINTAIN HIS frenetic pace of production, Patterson now uses co-authors for nearly all of his books. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course.

This is kind of what makes folks like me and Christopher sad. I mean yes, his are not the kinds of books we read, and yes it helps independent bookstores, but the books are such products that, I don't know, it feels like watering down the quality of books across the board. It's so corporate, so manufactured. There's no spark of life to it, but rather staged, mass produced tripe. Will it inspire other writers to try, or will it inspire businesspeople to work up strategies to sell a new franchise to the masses? Or am I overthinking this and being elitist?

But this all ties together. Polibrity books fall into the same category as Patterson - maybe not on the bookstore shelf, but in the minds of publishers. They are potential moneymakers. Mahler's article gets into this in quite a smart way. These books become the "blockbusters," allowing for new authors to get out there without as much risk, but this model is faltering. Like bonuses to Wall Street execs, the massive advances paid out to polibrities like Brown should not be taken lightly, as they cannot be so easily written off when Brown turns into a Gerald Ford rather than a Barack Obama.

But try telling that to Robert Barnett, who is cashing in. He actually sees publishing as a lucrative business. I mean, wtf is up with that? For those of us in the trenches, we read manuscripts and design books and think of creative marketing strategies late into the night, without counting on a big paycheck.

Is there room in the industry for fatcats and fatter advances, or do we need to level this playing field to make a more sustainable future for publishing?

Don't ask Scott Brown - he's too busy representing me in Congress. Egads....

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