Writing Celebrity?

Almost thirty years ago, I attended a science fiction and fantasy convention on the east coast, where a then-popular writer was toastmaster, and he made witty remarks, and was in fact the toast of the convention. Around fifteen years ago I attended a large national convention in the Rocky Mountain area, where, again, another locally popular writer was toastmaster and made witty remarks and was generally fawned over. What I’ve found interesting was that the first writer sold a handful of books, then a few written-for-hire Star Wars books, and then essentially vanished. The second writer sold one book, had a falling out with his editor, switched publishers and his second book flopped miserably, but remained a “celebrity’ for another few years before fading from view.

These two examples represent perhaps the extreme, but their cases are far from rare. There are other authors who sold well for decades and were never “celebrities,” except perhaps to a few hundred fans… and tens of thousands of readers who never thought of them as celebrities, just good writers whose books those readers bought… and bought. And then there are the handful of “rock-star” writers whose few public appearances at signings engender lines around blocks and limits on how many books the author will sign for any one individual.

From what I’ve observed over the years, there’s only a marginal relationship between having a celebrity “personality” or public attractiveness and being a good or popular writer, because I’ve seen poor writers treated as celebrities, and good ones who sell well but not spectacularly almost ignored at conventions and signings. Yes, there are good writers who are celebrities, and some are handsome or beautiful, but some are not.

The most obvious problem with being a celebrity is that it requires time, and in that respect, I’ve been most fortunate to be modestly recognized, but never a celebrity. If celebrities aren’t available to be celebrities their appeal fades quickly. At the same time, if celebrity is based on writing books, the time required to appear takes time away from writing, and fewer books get written… and celebrity fades, unless, of course, it’s fanned by a multi-million dollar television spin-off. Then too, for some writers, adulation and praise goes to their heads, and they become, as one publisher put it, “uneditable,” which usually lowers the quality of what they write.

Over time, though, one way or another, the celebrity fades. It fades more quickly for those writers with less ability, but it fades for all “celebrity” writers… and in the end, the books have to stand on their own, and some do. Most don’t.

So if you have the skill and talent and good luck to become a celebrity writer, enjoy the ride while it lasts, because that part of your writing career always ends before you think it will.

4 thoughts on “Writing Celebrity?”

  1. Brian K says:

    The two examples of celebrity writers had the charisma to sell themselves. But, alas, they didn’t have the staying power to sell what was really important in the long run: their novels.

    When I’m told that someone is a celebrity or an recognized expert at something my immediate reaction is to wonder what personal,subjective, agenda may be hiding behind that facade? If there is something hidden, is it to my benefit or detriment? Sometimes there is nothing hiding there and many times there is. But each demands scrutiny provided I feel like taking the time. Perhaps what your two examples were hiding was their self awareness that they weren’t very good writers and wanted to get their fifteen minutes of fame? Then again, their egos may not have permitted such depth of introspection.

    In the end, the individual buyer decides what is right for them. Whatever your celebrity status may be, Mr. Modesitt, it wouldn’t change the fact that your books appeal to me and I enjoy reading them.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      One might wish to wonder a little about everyone’s agenda, whether serious and productive, or unashamedly superficial. Neither category is automatically more trustworthy.

      IMO, generally honest storytellers (including our host, without regard to whether I agree with all his conclusions), to the extent they’re selling more than a story, are trying to convey understandings that they’ve found to be important and perhaps neglected; and do so by including elements and consequences, but not by attempting to manipulate their readers into a reaction immediately beyond simply enjoying the story.

      What is important and neglected is at least in prioritization, still subjective; but a safety check is if it doesn’t entirely align with any extant ideology more formal than balancing public pragmatism and private compassion.

  2. Josh Camden says:

    LEM’s prolific production and continued salability, speak loudly on his Excellence.

    He is my favorite Celebrity Author, and I look forward to the near future SF book that is currently under construction.

  3. alecia says:

    I was lucky enough to attend a convention wherein the celebrity panel included Chip Delany, Larry Niven, & Robert Silverberg. What I remember most is that none of these guys ‘stood fools gladly’ – and there were a few inanities in the audience. None tried to entertain, or tell jokes; each was serious about his work, and the topic – they wanted us to learn. It was one of the best ‘lectures’ I’ve ever attended. One of the reasons L.E.M. is one of my favorite authors is that, he, too, is serious about his work, and not only tells a great story, he teaches.

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