“How did famous personalities become successful authors?”
Richard Osman understood that if he wanted to write his debut crime novel, The Thursday Murder Club, he would need to dedicate 100% of his effort. Despite attempting to write a novel before, he wasn’t fully committed due to other obligations. However, with this project, he was determined to give it his all for the next couple of years. His agent, Juliet Mushens, reveals that he didn’t want to share his work until it was completed, and after a few drafts, they submitted it to publishers. The rest is history – The Thursday Murder Club became an immediate bestseller upon its release in 2020, and Osman has since published three more novels and sold over 10 million books worldwide.
He is a prime example of the growing trend of celebrity novelists. While famous individuals have been writing novels for years, the market has recently become inundated with celebrity-authored children’s books, such as those by David Walliams, Geri Halliwell-Horner, Paul McCartney, and Jamie Oliver. However, until recently, adult fiction written by celebrities has not seen high sales. According to Nielsen BookScan data, in 2018, there was only one celebrity-authored book, Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type, in the Top 100 paperback fiction bestsellers, and none in the Top 20. However, in 2023, there was a significant shift with eight out of the top 100 bestselling paperback fiction books and five out of the top 20 being written by celebrities, including Bob Mortimer, Richard Coles, and Dolly Parton. This success has sparked a wave of other celebrities trying their hand at writing novels.
There are differing views on the issue: some claim that an overall increase in book sales, specifically those by famous individuals, draws more readers to other works as well. On the other hand, some believe that celebrity novels take away the spotlight from writers who do not have a secondary profession to rely on. I interviewed publishers, agents, and writers – both celebrities and non-celebrities – to gain insight into the emergence of this contemporary phenomenon and its potential future developments.
The initial point of contention revolves around the use of the term “celebrity novelist.” Literary agent Jonny Geller from Curtis Brown argues that it can be seen as derogatory, implying that these writers are not serious and are simply selling merchandise like shoes and podcasts alongside their books. Lorraine Kelly, a broadcaster and journalist who will soon release her debut novel, agrees and would prefer to be referred to simply as a “novelist.” On the other hand, non-celebrity novelist Stephanie Merritt, who writes under the name SJ Parris, dislikes the term for a different reason. She feels a sense of resentment towards the special treatment and resources given to famous names in the industry.
“It’s something I find a bit frustrating,” says Mushens, “because I don’t think anyone would describe Stephen Fry as a celebrity novelist, would they?” That is probably true, even though Fry was an actor and comedian before publishing his debut novel, The Liar, in 1991. Many of today’s celebrity novelists were writers of another kind before turning to fiction. Bob Mortimer and Dawn French are comedians, and Osman was a writer and script editor for TV. Osman says that for people like these, “it would be surprising if they didn’t write books. If you write and you read, there comes a point where you have to write a book, otherwise something else is going to erupt out of you.” Geller agrees: “It’s got to be an obsession.”
Not all famous writers are recognized for their writing abilities, and they may not consistently produce books. According to Phoebe Morgan, who oversees the publication of popular fiction for Hodder & Stoughton and works with authors like Graham Norton and Sara Cox, the publishing industry tends to follow trends. When someone like Osman becomes a sensation, others will try to imitate their success.
It is not unexpected that publishing is in competition with various entertainment options in a constantly evolving media world. Having a well-known author can be alluring. The emergence of TikTok as a means of promoting books allows publishers to analyze popular individuals and trends, and potentially profit from them.
According to Geller, publishers are seeking individuals with established platforms for their books, as it brings a built-in audience. His agency, Curtis Brown, receives frequent requests from publishers for celebrities to write novels. Morgan affirms that this is typically how it happens, with publishers approaching celebrities. (Osman, who wrote his book before seeking an agent, appears to be an exception.) However, not just any celebrity will do. Geller explains that publishers prefer “national treasures” because readers can relate to them.
Lorraine Kelly is a perfect fit for this description. She was approached for a book deal, but she was more thrilled about the fact that it was being published by Maeve Binchy’s publisher. Her book, The Island Swimmer, takes place in Orkney and is described by her publisher, Orion, as a moving tale about community, loss, relationships, and optimism. After finalizing the deal, she was left to her own devices. Kelly had to carefully schedule time to write her book because it is a demanding job and she already has a full-time job.
There is a type of celebrity literature that differs from those written by Osman, Kelly, and others mentioned earlier. This type is known as the ghostwritten novel, where a well-known name may provide ideas for the story, characters, or other elements, but a professional writer is responsible for most, if not all, of the actual writing. As Merritt explains, publishers are seeking out anyone who has appeared on television, regardless of their writing abilities, to publish novels. For Osman, this is an entirely different aspect of the industry, where individuals famous for various reasons are ghostwriting books and having them published without much risk for the publisher.
These novels, written by others but credited to celebrities, also have a history. For instance, Naomi Campbell’s book Swan (1995) was mostly written by Caroline Upcher without much involvement from Campbell. The current trend is for a more collaborative process, utilizing the celebrity’s expertise in their field. One example is Shirley Ballas’s Murder on the Dance Floor, a cozy crime novel set in the world of ballroom dancing, which she wrote with Sheila McClure, a seasoned author with over 30 novels under her belt. According to Geller, publishers are seeking clarity in these projects – if a celebrity is known for something specific, the novel should reflect that. However, if a celebrity from Gogglebox wanted to write an adaptation of Medea, it would be a difficult task for a publisher.
One important element appears to be the level of openness. According to Osman, “The majority of individuals who do not write their own book are honest about it.” This is not seen as a disadvantage because it is clear what is being presented. It is more of a branding decision.
Millie Bobby Brown’s Nineteen Steps, a recent work, serves as an example. Brown, an actress famous for her role in Stranger Things, collaborated with ghostwriter Kathleen McGurl on this project. For editor Katie Seaman, who currently runs her own editorial consulting business, Brown’s personal connection to the book was a crucial factor. Seaman stated, “What drew me to the book was its authenticity. The fact that it was inspired by Brown’s family history, particularly her close relationship with her grandmother who lived in Bethnal Green during the war.” Part of the novel revolves around the Bethnal Green tube disaster, where 173 people lost their lives in March 1943. “The book felt timely due to its exploration of a government cover-up and the way it was portrayed in the media,” Seaman added.
McGurl’s name appears on the title page (but not on the cover), and Brown was transparent about the book being ghostwritten, sharing a photo with McGurl for her 63 million Instagram followers. However, Brown still received backlash. One user on X (previously known as Twitter) expressed, “Celebrity novels that are ghostwritten have negatively impacted children’s literature and now they’re having the same effect on adult fiction.”
According to Seaman, publishing is always a team effort. When editing a book, it feels like a partnership. The argument for having a ghostwriter credited on the cover raises questions about the role of editors in shaping a manuscript. This is exemplified by the heavily edited stories of Raymond Carver by Gordon Lish, which ultimately led to Carver’s celebrated minimalist style. The criticism received by Brown’s novel may have been fueled by ageism and misogyny, as Seaman suggests. Perhaps there is a different standard for young women in the industry.
Is there a third category of novels that are suspected to be ghostwritten but have not been officially declared as such? According to Osman, the author has a responsibility to readers to put in considerable effort to accurately represent themselves. This is the essence of all literature, regardless of genre. Lorraine Kelly also believes that it is important to credit the person who has actually done the writing when working with a collaborator.
Occasionally, there are suspicions that a famous person may have received assistance. In his book Deadly Game, Michael Caine expresses gratitude to journalist Matthew d’Ancona for “assisting me in assembling it”. Rob Rinder’s novel The Trial acknowledges journalist Emily Fairbairn “for clearing through my mental clutter to uncover a coherent story”. Neither book gives credit to a ghostwriter. (Rinder’s publisher declined to be interviewed for this article.)
There are differing opinions on ghostwritten books, with some believing they are inherently flawed. Author Evelyn Waugh described novels as a means of utilizing language and argues that a writer cannot effectively convey their own perspective using another’s words. However, not all readers share this view. Phoebe Morgan from Hodder & Stoughton suggests that some readers may find literary novels daunting, but are drawn to celebrity fiction because of their familiarity with the author. Ghostwritten memoirs are generally accepted, but there is a sense of protectiveness surrounding ghostwritten fiction.
Perhaps this is a general criticism of all celebrity-authored books, whether they are ghostwritten or not. Merritt believes that these types of books are often given priority and attention over other works. This favoritism is not seen in other forms of media, as an example being that Judy Murray’s agent does not suggest to her that she should have an art exhibit at a prestigious institution simply because she is the mother of a famous tennis player. According to Merritt, this attitude diminishes the value of writing as a skill that requires professional expertise.
Author Ian Rankin shares that in the past, he may have been frustrated about his lack of success. He would complain to his agent, who would remind him that celebrity novels attract readers who have never stepped foot in a bookshop before. However, now that he is more successful, he is more relaxed about it. Morgan also agrees with this perspective, stating that having a successful celebrity author allows publishers to take a chance on new writers because they have the financial stability.
Geller, the representative for comedian Ruth Jones, admits that having a public profile gives her an advantage over a first-time author living in a remote location. In other words, it’s more likely for your debut novel to be published if you are already well-known. However, this strategy cannot guarantee long-term success, as seen with Graham Norton or Richard Osman who have achieved success in countries where they were not previously famous. Ultimately, having a passion for writing is crucial. TV host Lorraine Kelly speaks convincingly about the satisfaction she feels from holding her own novel in her hands.
Osman’s achievements could be the reason why other famous individuals have also turned to criminal activities, such as Rob Rinder and Reverend Richard Coles. However, there have also been noteworthy instances of celebrities succeeding in the genres of romance and comedy. Is anyone in the world of celebrities writing literary works? According to Morgan, it is possible that “celebrities are approached more by commercial publishers, while literary imprints may not do so as frequently.” As for Osman, he believes that breaking into literary fiction as a celebrity author is a tougher challenge.
David Baddiel, after writing two humorous novels, attempted a more ambitious literary work with his third book, The Secret Purposes (2004). This novel explored the internment of British and Jewish-German refugees on the Isle of Man during World War II. However, Baddiel has expressed that there is a strong resistance to celebrity-authored novels in the literary world. Despite this, he believes that his best novel, The Death of Eli Gold, may have been overlooked due to the pressure for literary works to be nominated for prestigious awards. He believes that there is a detrimental relationship between literary fiction and winning awards, as books often do not gain recognition unless they are nominated for major prizes.
He believes this is due to the current state of fame being divided into smaller pieces. Each person has their own corner of fame and it is frowned upon to venture into someone else’s territory. He uses Magnus Mills as an example, whose first book The Restraint of Beasts (1998) was nominated for the Booker prize while he worked as a bus driver. This was seen as a positive for him. However, if he had been a famous bus driver, appearing on a reality show called The Bus Driver, it would not have been viewed as a positive. Eventually, after Eli Gold, Baddiel decided to stop writing literary fiction and instead focused on highly successful nonfiction and children’s novels.
Some famous people’s books don’t succeed, regardless. Do you recall model Cara Delevingne’s book Mirror Mirror (2017)? I don’t. Juliet Mushens explains, “When you examine the rankings for adult fiction, celebrities are not the main force.” She adds, “The books that thrive in this genre are truly exceptional.” Osman points out that the literary world is particularly welcoming to new and unfamiliar voices. The biggest successes of late, such as Gabrielle Zevin and Bonnie Garmus, would not have been possible in the film or TV industry.”
Can the bubble burst? Not at this moment. Kelly is currently working on her second novel. Osman hopes to write 20 or 30 novels as they best reflect his identity. Morgan shares that she has signed two new celebrity authors, whose names are not disclosed, but they fit into Geller’s category of “national treasures”. She believes that readers are drawn to these types of personalities and their compelling stories, making them the ideal choice for celebrity fiction.
Can anyone outdo Richard Osman, whose newest book broke records as the quickest-selling hardcover by a British writer, surpassing his previous novel? Geller has a suggestion. “The most in-demand book that hasn’t been written yet is Taylor Swift’s novel,” he says with a grin. “That would appeal to every demographic.” Mr. Osman, beware.