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Sunday, December 1, 2019

Michelle Obama's Memoir: The Celebrity "Author" and the Sad Reality of Book Publishing

     If you want to work hard and make very little money, become a writer. For the vast majority of writers, even very good ones, that is the reality of book publishing and authorship. Another reality is this: in terms of income inequity, nothing tops the profession of book writing where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

     In America, while 95 percent of writers make far below the minimum wage, the top five percent--mostly celebrity memoirists--make the good money. And because they are not real writers, celebrities don't even have to write their own books. Most celebrity-"authored" memoirs are written by ghostwriters. (Believe it or not, celebrities have even published ghostwritten fiction.) This is not to say that all celebrity memoirs are bestsellers, but on the whole, compared to their no-name counterparts, they do quite well. Is this the way book publishing should work? No, but this is how things work in a capitalistic nation where celebrities are worshipped. (For example, while traditional journalism is dead, celebrity "journalism" flourishes.)

     During the past year in the United States, 27 percent of the adult population did not open one book. Although America is not a book reading country, it is a book writing country. Every year about 800,000 books are published, half of which are self-published. The average book, in its lifetime, sells less than 250 copies. A hardback book that sells 30.000 copies is considered a publishing success. In 2017, not one hardback book sold more than a million copies.

     And now, the unreality of book publishing. On November 13, 2018, Bertelsmann's Penguin Random House Division published Michelle Obama's memoir, Becoming: A Guided Journal For Discovering Your Voice. Written "with the help" of a ghostwriter, the 448-page celebrity memoir was released in 24 languages. For her efforts, Michelle Obama received a staggering $65 million advance. (The average commercial hardback book advance in the United States is a paltry $5,000. And these people write their own books. Talk about income inequality.) In publishing, the bigger the advance, the more the publisher has to spend promoting the book and its author. For this reason, the vast majority of writers have to promote their books themselves, and never experience a book tour.

     On the first day of its publication, Becoming, in the United States and Canada, sold 725,000 copies. Those sales shot the book to the top of every bestseller list in the country with a half a million copies to spare. Obama's was the second best first-day book launch in U.S. publishing history. (Bob Woodward's 2015 Fear: Trump in the White House, sold 900,000 on its first day.)

    As of this writing, 10 million copies of Becoming have sold worldwide, making it the bestselling memoir in American history.

     As a person who would not touch a celebrity memoir with a ten-foot pole, particularly one with such a pretentious title, the commercial success of this book is both shocking and depressing.

     In America, if you want to become a bestselling author without having to learn the craft of writing, become a celebrity.

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