The Vocabulary: “Book-like Product”

The best books start here.

The Vocabulary: “Book-like Product”

(First entry in an occasional series in which we bandy about useful terms for the industry. Want to contribute your own? Please email your entries to podcast@upstartcrowliterary.com. This first is inspired by Michael Pollan’s useful thoughts about food.]

madgeBook-like product. These are high-profile (and high-priced) projects: Books that are purchased by publishers and published but that are not sold to the traditional book audience, or are sold on some appeal that is extra-literary.

They may be books “written” by celebrities (such as the recent deal for Hilary Duff, or Lauren Conrad’s two novels, or Jerry Seinfeld’s Halloween “picture book” from a few years back). Or books that no one outside of the celebrity’s following (mostly non book buyers) would purchase. (Think of Madonna’s The English Roses. Or Glenn Beck’s picture book.)

Such projects are written and bound and jacketed and look like the rest of the books a publisher may have in its catalogue, sure. They may even read wonderfully well. But make no mistake: They are Something Else. Book-like products don’t behave in the marketplace like regular old books, and so should never be used as a point of comparison in discussions of the marketplace. Publishers spend more money on these projects, and the projects have a much higher profile in the world. But neither the advance nor the buzz about the book have any bearing on regular old books and publishing. And these kinds of projects have been around for as long as publishing has been a business.

Instead, book-like products should be seen as a lucrative side-line that publishers engage in to help them earn in the marketplace. For all it matters, Usually, the book-like products come out of different branches of the publisher that don’t really mix with the more literary minded part of the company, and for all their bookishness, may as well be jigsaw puzzles. Or Beanie Babies. Or Colorforms.

All of which is to say, we shouldn’t get up in arms because Hilary Duff (or Lauren Conrad or Madonna or Britney Spears or whichever glamorpuss of the moment) got a big deal for a book-like product. That is just one more of the crappy products that orbit her celebrity, and its success or failure affects the real book marketplace not at all.

But am I going far enough in defining this category? Or too far? What about books that become phenomenons and leave the rest of publishing behind? Surely they no longer count as representative of anything useful, right?

  1. As an up-in-armer type, I have a question about these book-like products. They make not, as you say, affect the real book marketplace but I wonder if they suck off some of people’s limited spending dollars which (up-in-arms again)I would prefer going to an actual BOOK of more literary merit. In other words, how many consumers are suckered by a celebrity title and plonk down $15 for that, rather than on a title by an actual writer? (Sorry Hilary, Madonna, Britney etc.)

    Reply

  2. Drat my stubby fingers and damnable haste! I meant to say “They may not” in my opening line.

    Reply

  3. The same names behind book-like products often grow up to have or acquire children and perform parent-like actions, especially the fun parts like dressing their cherubs in whatever is most adorably, expensively Now. They have good people doing lots of the unglamorous stuff that can result in a best-selling decent read on all the right lists, or even a happy, well-adjusted child. Yay them. I’d do it, too.

    But these people and their products don’t threaten my sense of adequacy as a writer (there are plenty of other more warranted reasons), just as they don’t threaten my sense of adequacy as a parent. That would be silly. What I mean is, I agree with what you’re saying here, at least as it relates to writing (since I don’t know enough about the business end of publishing). Even if you’re rationalizing a little bit, it works very well for me. So, thanks for this.

    Reply

  4. Thank you for sharing this perspective. While I understand the need not to “get up in arms,” I still get very frustrated. When I visit the poetry section of bookstores I find the usual allocation of Silverstein and Prelutsky. However, when you look for other notable children’s poets who do you find? Jeff Foxworthy. UGH.

    The problem that arises is that chain booksellers will stock these celebrity books, but not other titles. Sure, they’ll order them for customers, but if I’m a parent browsing in the store, there’s not a lot for me to choose from. For folks who have no local independent booksellers, this lack of selection is even worse.

    So, while I agree, I guess I disagree a bit to the extent that even if these books don’t make an impact on the publishing side, it seems like they do on the marketing end.

    Reply

  5. How much involvement does a celebrity actually have in the creation of a book-like product? Are they generally doing the literary equivalent of lip synching?

    Reply

  6. Do the book-like products hog shelf space and dollars that might be spent on actual books? Sure. But then, so do the magazines, tchotchkes, stuffed animals, puppets, DVDs, bookmarks, booklights, light-brites, night-lights, black lights, and whatever other junk a bookstore puts on its shelves.

    It helps to think of the book-like products as more like those things and less like books. They promise a certain return on investment, they drag a certain atypical bookstore customer to the register. That person was likely never going to wander in and buy a Prelutsky book, but now, maybe by chance, she’ll pick one up along with Mr. Peabo Bryson’s Apples or whatever.

    They look like books on the outside, yes, but they function in the market differently. And so should be viewed as the Other.

    Reply

  7. Point very well taken, Michael. Thanks.

    As an aside, I’d love to hear snarky caption suggestions for the above photo….
    “Shhh! I didn’t really write this, but don’t tell!”

    Reply

  8. Or maybe she is saying,”Shhh to the kids. The adults want to hear my story.”

    Reply

  9. [...] The Vocabulary: “Book-like Product” » Upstart Crow Literary [...]

    Reply

  10. Well put Rhonda… I agree. What little mind share I gave to these products in the past will now be reduced to none-such. However, on occasion I may chuckle at the term. Where does it go from here? Will the oldest profession become known as a “love-like-product” or perhaps on an environmentally macabre tangent, will we one day be forced to breathe an “air-like-product”?

    Reply

  11. I’ll never forget a photo op moment from The English Roses publicity tour. Madonna was reading to a handful of children, and they started to fidget, chat, and generally ignore her and her story. Oh, it was glorious! Laser beams shot out of her eyes and you could practically hear her internal scream, “I AM MADONNA. YOU WILL BE SILENT.” And then she turned to the cameras and played it off rather graciously. But I heard it. I heard her silent scream.

    Reply

  12. I like the term “book like product” (though it’s not nearly harsh enough in my mind) It’s comparable to calling kraft slices a “cheese like product”… cause the term the company uses now has me completely confused. What the heck is “cheese food”?
    Oh, that brings up the subject, should the publisher of these “book like products” call themselves a manufacterer?

    Reply

  13. Michael,
    I’m so glad you did this post! The other day on Twitter, people were saying, “Every time a celeb gets a book deal, a writer loses a pen…”

    I kinda got sad about it, thinking, “poor little us, slaving away to get a book published, and she just bats her eyelashes and a book deal appears,” but then I wondered if she may have actually put some hard work into the book-like product.

    So I guess I’m echoing KT Horning above, is it possible that she thought up the plot, spent hours typing it out, went through countless revisions, and all that writerly stuff, or is she “lip synching” like KT asks?

    Reply

  14. I meant to put Hilary Duff’s name in there somewhere…

    My question was in regards to her book deal.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>