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Packaged Deal

Book publishing is a business. This is something that it sometimes takes aspiring writers years to learn, and some never do quite get it. People can get quite romantic about books, myself included. You just don't want to believe that people write or publish books for the money, especially since it's so hard to believe, publishing being the frankly less than lucrative industry that it is right now. I mean, some people get rich off it, but hardly as many as get rich off, say, film and television acting.

Still, there is such thing as a slam dunk in publishing. There are the Oprah's Book Club picks, natch, or yet another novel released by the juggernaut authors linked above (Stephen King, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, etc.), but there are also books that capitalize off of undeserved negligible fame in the 10-25 age bracket. This is my exasperated way of saying that Lauren "LC" Conrad of The Hills fame (like, duh) recently got a three-book deal, and I'm pretty pissed about it.

I don't watch The Hills anymore, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I don't have cable (and by that I mean I don't have any television whatsoever in my home that doesn't come on a DVD from Netflix), so I can't watch it except online or at a friend's apartment, which I never do. Second of all, the show refuses to admit that these people are famous now, FOR BEING ON THE HILLS, so I find that the "reality" aspect, which has been in tatters since the very first episode, is pretty much shot to hell. And, worse, it's just boring. So whatever.

Now, John Green thinks that the series will fail, which it could, but I think it could also succeed and here's why: Gossip Girl. The A-List. The It Girl. Clique. Private. Pretty Little Liars. The Au Pairs. The Baby-Sitters Club. SWEET VALLEY HIGH.

The thing all these series have in common is this: book packaging. The way book packaging works is that it's kind of the opposite of outsourcing; a company does all the creative work (conceiving of a series/brand and finding writers who then execute content) and then sells it to a big New York house to be published under the banner of one of their imprints. Basically, book packaging houses are book factories, a chop shop where a notable name is affixed to the cover and ghostwriters are engaged on a work for hire basis. It's not always this flagrant, but when a series is called "Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High", that's a major tip-off that the person writing those books is not Francine Pascal, or even the same person book to book.

Now, I'm not saying that this is what's happening with Lauren Conrad's books. I mean, she might write them herself--but I doubt it. This book deal is just about growing the Lauren Conrad brand, like her fashion line, which bothered me less because at least fashion was something LC (and by "LC" I mean the narrator of Laguna Beach, before she turned into this mascara-crying constantly-betrayed poseur) was interested in pursuing as an actual career, before being herself on television became her career.

The books will probably be ghostwritten, drawing off interviews with LC for material, and that will be that. They will be churned out at the speed of light and heavily marketed and could possibly morph into a franchise. That's what these books, the successful ones, do. And if this is what the girls want to read, then I guess you can't fault the publisher--or Lauren Conrad--for agreeing to fill the void.

But at what price? As John Green points out, these books could do a couple of bad things to the industry, including further devaluing YA in the eyes of those who are already skeptical, propagating the idea that YA is easy to write even a dim bulb like LC can do it, and taking up shelf space and publishing resources (like marketing dollars, already scant in New York houses as it is) better used on books that could sell for years and years because they are well-written and really speak to teens instead of exploiting our celeb-obsessed culture for a quick buck in the here and now.

Because let me tell you a secret about those packaged books from the '90s, like SVH and Baby-Sitters Club--they no longer sell, and not because the technological references are dated. The companies that own the copyrights have been updating them for a new audience, with cell phones and laptops and TIVO. And guess what? Nobody cares. The books aren't selling. And in a couple of years, after the TV show is canceled, nobody will care about the Gossip Girl books and their ilk, either.

I find it hard to put my finger on just what bothers me about Lauren Conrad's book deal specifically, and book packaging in general. Technically, there's nothing wrong with it. But in reality, there's so much wrong with it. Like with most art, authenticity is the keystone of literature (and by that I mean all books, regardless of so-called "literary" merits, which can be debated from now until eternity and doesn't really matter in this context), that all-important attribute that, by its sheer presence, keeps a book from crumbling to pieces. And books written with the sheer goal of making a profit--basically, books without heart--often lack authenticity, which I would say, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, is what makes them dangerous. What do they contribute? To whose heart do they speak?

Here's where I will insert the caveat that not all novels that come from a book packager lack authenticity and heart (I know this to be a fact--the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants novels have their origins at a book packager, and frankly I think they're great), and perhaps LC has always secretly dreamed of being a novelist and now that dream is coming true. It's hard to know, in any case, the motives that drive a person to put pen to paper, or, I guess, fingertips to keyboard.

But I still balk every time I hear that a celebrity is "writing" a book, in the same way that I balked the time I overheard a teenage girl exclaim, "This is my favorite book!" over an installment of the Gossip Girl series. I wanted to take that girl's hand, lead her through the YA section, and drop book after wonderful book into her hands. "Read these," I wanted to say. "Listen to what these authors are trying to say to you instead of what those books are trying to sell you."

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  1. Blogger chris | 3:59 PM |  

    How similar are the Gossip Girl books to the TV show? Always wondered but of course never went and found out for myself...

    Also, what about the very question about Lauren's writing experience? Does she have any? Doesn't one need to be a writer in order to get a book deal?

  2. Blogger Adam | 4:33 PM |  

    I'm sure the answer to this question is very obvious, but I have to ask or I'll forever wonder when reading your posts. What does YA stand for?

  3. Blogger OHD | 6:38 PM |  

    1. Having read exactly 20 pages of the first Gossip Girl book, I can say with limited certainty that the books are inferior to the show. The show has better writers, and a deeper grasp of character, and also Ed Westwick and Leighton Meester, who MAKE Chuck and Blair, the only characters on that show worth watching in and of themselves.

    2. You can defs get a book deal without being a writer. All you need is what the biz calls a "platform," which means you have developed a fan base which can then be counted on (at least in theory) to buy your book. As for all that pesky writing, they can hire somebody else for that if you can't do it.

    3. YA stands for Young Adult. It means, basically, all books published for teenagers, ages 12 and up.

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