23 October 2003

The Emperor's New Jacket
Michiko Kakutani is not beloved of the publishing industry. A leading "weekday" reviewer for the New York Times (that is, her work ordinarily appears in regular editions, not the Sunday Book Review), she is renowned for her poison-pen reviews. Think Mikey in the old Life Cereal commercials—according to many publishing industry insiders, she doesn't like anything. While I do not agree with all of her evaluations, her positions are always at least clear, cogent, and defensible, which is more than I can say for PW or Kirkus or Hornbook or NYRB or even the Sunday NYTBR.

   So I am waiting for the whispering campaign against her to become a shouting campaign after she pointed out in today's New York Times that "celebrity-written" books for children are not usually very good. This is yet another instance of brand ruling over substance, which is particularly ironic in children's literature. The cold hard numbers indicate that children's literature, more than any other market segment, survives based on the strength of sales after the ordinary 18-month life of a book in active distribution. That should encourage publishers to look for the characteristics that tend to allow a book to exceed that 18-month life: good writing, grappling with difficult issues (at least "age-appropriate" difficult issues) without preaching, a sly sense of humor, and characters with whom the reader can empathize (if not always sympathize).

   In the current market, though, publishers are looking for "the next J.K. Rowling." Ms. Kakutani's article lists a number of celebrity "authors" of children's books—and at least three on her list were ghostwritten. What that says for publisher judgment… As Ms. Kakutani closes her essay, "So far Joanne Kathleen Rowling-never mind the Grimm brothers and Dr. Seuss-faces little serious competition in the children's book business, at least not from the celebrities who covet her celebrity and underestimate the difficulty of her art."