Hubert Burda Media

Are Authors the New Rock Stars?

A journey into the uncharted waters of literary merchandise.

Not content with merely making a song and dance about things, some rock stars like to print their words between book covers, as well as on CD-case inserts and, lately, full-size record sleeves. This is hardly a new phenomenon: John Lennon’s first book In His Own Write was published back in 1964; he was even billed as “The Writing Beatle!” on the cover, as if musicians were unacquainted with paper and pen. Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature ostensibly for a career bursting with extraordinary lyrics, but volume one of his evocative memoirs, Chronicles, may well have contributed to his nomination.

The eloquent David Byrne, possibly popular music’s foremost intellectual, offers his thoughts on the future music business – candidly illustrated with reference to his personal business dealings – in How Music Works. Patti Smith, queen of the 1970s’ new wave, recently published Devotion, which has its origins in a lecture series called “Why I Write”, but wanders off into a short story framed by a travel journal. And Bruce Springsteen eclipsed countless biographies of The Boss by writing his own life story, Born to Run, which for a rock ’n’ roll autobiography turned out to be unusually honest and self-deprecating.

But this sub-genre of (mostly) non-fiction need not detain us further here, because in a curious, not-quite-parallel case of “anything you can do…” there’s a startling evolution going on in the literary world. It seems that certain imaginative types, who, without having to bust a lung behind a mike or twang, bash or exhale into any sort of musical appliance, have arguably become the new rock stars of the age: authors.

Consider: the Jaipur Literature Festival, held every January, hosted 380 speakers over five days this year. Last year’s figures show a total of 350,000 visitors to what is, at least according to its marketing spiel, “the greatest literary show on Earth”. Nor do attendees turn up out of misplaced curiosity and drowse through sessions while playing with their mobile phones. They are keen to grill authors on their pronouncements from the stage – and they strip the on-site bookshop of works by their favourite writers to snag that precious autograph and dedication. As if those numbers weren’t sufficiently impressive, Jaipur has also spawned festivals half a world or more away from India: in London, New York and Boulder, Colorado.

Edgar Allan Poe The Raven literary scarf
Edgar Allan Poe The Raven literary scarf

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, with 180 best-selling authors joining a party that runs to more than 200 sessions and workshops at Dubai’s gleaming Festival City. The Hay Festival of literature and the arts in Wales, perhaps Britain’s best-loved such happening, outstrips even Jaipur in its global ambitions, begetting copies of itself in Spain, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Denmark.

The Hong Kong International Literary Festival and the Shanghai International Literary Festival are other notable fixtures on the endless carnival calendar. And who can blame audiences for suffering from groupie fever when a random sample drawn from recent line-ups at all the above festivals returns Margaret Atwood, Alexander McCall Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Jeet Thayil, Carol Ann Duffy, William Dalrymple, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Philip Pullman, Amy Tan, Tom Stoppard, Pico Iyer and Ian Rankin?

We now come to the irrefutable proof that authors really are rock stars – and that, just as with their musical brethren, even those no longer with us can still turn a profit. (And to nudge the comparison a little closer, some authors who are still with us are also accomplished musicians. An example: Louis de Bernières, who has graced many an ensemble, plays the flute, clarinet, bouzouki, guitar and, yes, mandolin.) How long will it be before individual authors are basking in the glow of shelves of personally endorsed products (“merch”, in concert-tour terminology) in exclusive tent-booths at festival venues? As well as merely signing books, might an author not, for instance, market the Captain Corelli souvenir miniature mandolin, with de Bernières’ certificate of authenticity? How about an Irvine Welsh monogrammed syringe?

With half the world caught in an endlessly looping episode of I’m a Celebrity Groupie, Get Me in There, this is not entirely frivolous. It’s already happening, after a fashion. Respected periodical The New York Review of Books offers through its website the chiffon Jane Eyre literary scarf, decorated with “a vintage-inspired photo collage of roses, lace, bows and hydrangeas” and the Edgar Allan Poe greyscale tribute The Raven literary scarf bearing the poem’s entire text. Other desirable goodies include the Gertrude Stein necklace, the Louisa May Alcott pillow cover, the Shakespeare’s Britain jigsaw puzzle and the TS Eliot tea towel.

Classic book covers decorate this colourful cushion
Classic book covers decorate this colourful cushion

Naturally, Prestige was quick to consult some marquee names to discover what irresistible couture items, homeware essentials, trinkets or even ablution aids they would like to endorse. Jade Chang, author of comic novel The Wangs vs The World, which features the eponymous family’s drive across the United States, would put some marketing muscle behind “Wang bobbleheads, which could sit on the dashboard during your road trip; and JC knuckledusters, inspired by the wrings of television star Tracee Ellis Ross, which would be handy in a fight!”

Ira Trivedi, author of India in Love and a master of yoga, would add her signature to “an Ira teapot and a range of yoga gear – in Lycra, for sure”.

DBC Pierre, winner of the 2003 Man Booker Prize with Vernon God Little, says: “I’d be in the market for a Hunter S Thompson drug caddy, or a Charles Bukowski morning-after bucket. A William Burroughs shit detector slide-rule, a Hemingway cocktail glass – which probably already exists – or a Baudelaire smoking pipe.

“For DBC merchandise I’d want a small decision-making assistant: a pocket-sized resin model of a capybara with a simple random generator inside that displayed two sets of results: one for Martinis – ‘dirty’ or ‘clean’ – and one for managing significant life decisions, saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

Paul French, author of murder mystery Midnight in Peking, says, “I’d like a special range of zesty, refreshing bathroom products: shower gel, conditioner, shampoo and perhaps a scented candle. The Midnight Refresh range would wash away the dirt and grime of Shanghai back alleys and Peking hutongs after a day down among the dead, the dissipated and the desolate of foreign China’s underbelly.”

Well, nobody ever said literature wasn’t a dirty business.

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