Stephen Colbert, Lena Dunham — Yes, Even James Franco — and the Era of Celebrity as Bookseller

I wrote a post a few years ago about Jewel’s 1998 bestselling book of poetry, A Night Without Armor. The book, while undeniably terrible, has probably sold more copies in one year than the bestselling books of poetry from the last five years combined. What does that tell you? For one, it says that with all the great poetry out there, the general public has really bad taste. But it also speaks volumes about the fact that a celebrity name attached to a book — whether they wrote it or not — sells copies. And although there was probably no study as to how much extra time customers stood in the poetry aisle, browsing the other titles, and possibly buying them, lured there because of A Night Without Armor, I have to believe at least a few young minds were drawn to poetry because of that book. Because, let’s face it: we all have to start somewhere, and that somewhere usually sucks.

night-without-armorWhile I’m guessing not too many people were enticed to pick up Derek Walcott’s work after putting down Jewel’s magnum opus, people were reading poetry — terrible poetry, but that’s something. What Jewel didn’t do, however, was help push poetry by suggesting other poets her fans could get into. There was no mentions of, “Hart Crane really inspired a lot of my work,” and, by no fault of Jewel’s (I think) the internet wasn’t the power player it is today. There were no “Jewel pick five books of poetry for you” listicles anywhere.

Things are different these days. Celebrities (or their publicists or assistants) can knock out book suggestions and get them out to their countless fans with the click of a button. One perfect example, who we’ve talked about more than enough around these parts, is James Franco. You know James Franco: you know everything he does, everything he claims to do, and basically everything else about the James Franco Complete Package.

It’s easy to slag Franco because he’s the ultimate example of a man having his cake and eating it too. He’s a successful actor, but he has all these other things he wants to do, with being a writer the number one thing on that list. It can get annoying, but at the end of the day, Franco routinely talks about books he likes — some are by authors everybody knows, but a lot of times, they’re lesser-known writers with books on indie presses. Granted, he doesn’t talk about women writers all that much (hopefully he’ll take us up on some of our suggestions), but James Franco has probably pushed just as many books into the hands of people as any tossed off 50 word post on a website or a short review in a magazine.

Dunham with Judy Blume
Dunham with Judy Blume

Lena Dunham, a writer with a forthcoming book herself, does the same thing — telling people to pick up books like Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, or by blurbing Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. And now even Jack White is getting into the act, not as much by suggesting, but actually starting a publishing wing of his record label, Third Man, that will look to fuse music with literature. While an indie publishing books is nothing new (Drag City routinely releases books, and now even Hozac is getting into the action), Third Man is always known as Jack White’s record label; therefore, these are books that are being published by Jack White.

Yet while those examples might help round out a few reading lists, there’s the one biggest fish, the fairy godmother that can turn you into a bestseller overnight with a wave of her wand and a Book Club seal of approval: Oprah.

It’s been known for a long time that induction into Oprah’s Book Club changes the course of a writer’s entire career. If she says her fans should read your book, pretty much all of them will do it, and they will make all of their friends read it too. Just ask Cheryl Strayed. She was already a popular and beloved writer, but when Oprah talked up Wild, it was pretty much a given you’d see it on the bestseller list for at least the next year or two.

ColbertLepuckiCaliforniaPowells_thumb%255B2%255DBut Oprah’s title has seen a challenger recently. Stephen Colbert, who will eventually take over one of the most important seats in television when he starts as David Letterman’s replacement on The Late Show, has shown just how powerful his own suggestions are — he helped Edan Lepucki’s novel, California, to debut at the #3 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, just by telling his viewers to buy it as a middle finger to Amazon, who is currently at war with Lepucki’s publisher, Hachette. (Colbert himself is also a Hachette author.) While I enjoyed Lepucki’s book, it’s hard to imagine she would have gotten that high on the bestseller list right out of the gate without that Colbert bump. And, as we saw recently, Colbert (with the help of Lepucki) is capable of more magic, helping to push sales of Stephan Eirik Clark’s Sweetness #9 after mentioning it on his show.

Whether or not Colbert can challenge to be the ultimate bookseller remains to be seen. Will he have authors on Late Night? Will he casually tweet the name of a book every now and then? In the meantime, no matter how much we want to act like we don’t like it, we should be more thankful than anything to the celebrities that talk up books. They’re the ones doing the best job telling their fans to stop watching them on television or at the movies, and go pick up a book. It’s something we should welcome, and wish to see more of.