(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 email@example.com. This first is inspired by Michael Pollan’s useful thoughts about food.]
Book-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?