If Taylor Swift Won’t Write Her Memoir, Her Fans Will Do It For Her
Simon & Schuster is inviting fans to write the ultimate, crowdsourced Taylor Swift biography. It’s a brilliant idea. But who benefits?
Next October, you could get paid $10,000 — and get your name on the cover of a potential landmark in publishing history. All you need to do is prove yourself the #1 Swift expert — and have enough leisure time to spend as the public face of the book. You could get $2,500 if you come up with the best title, or $5,000 if you design the winning cover. But this book, which publisher Simon & Schuster describes as “an oversized and beautifully illustrated volume with the feel of a scrapbook,” won’t just be the work of these three winners. It’ll be created “by fans, for fans.”
The final product will be filled with gorgeous illustrations, touching anecdotes, and the best of the best (positive) writing on Swift, excerpted from various profiles, appreciations, and reviews of Swift and her work from the last ten years. Fan content will arrive primarily through submissions to SwiftFanBook.com, where anyone can share “high-resolution photographs” and “unique illustrations and other works of art that center around Taylor and her music." The book will feel, in editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler's words, like “an elaborate Mash note” — the sort of highly collectable fetish object that's become increasingly central to the book industry.
And it’ll cost Simon & Schuster comparatively nothing, in part because they’re not paying Swift a thing. As the website is careful to note, "Taylor Swift has not authorized, sponsored or endorsed this book," and as literary agent Kate McKean explains, “the publisher sees a subject with a huge fan base and finds the content fans want to read and the writers willing to contribute to it — so everyone wins, except, of course, Taylor Swift, who doesn’t have any say about it at all.”
The book will also be the latest in a long, often unheralded history of fan-created content — and of major publishing entities profiting from that content. During Classic Hollywood, fan magazines regularly solicited fans to submit stories, illustrations, or anecdotes to flesh out their pages; at the height of its popularity in the ‘70s, the National Enquirer did the same. Publishers needs cheap content, and fans are willing to provide that content cheaply, or for free. In most cases, those same fans will also buy that content once it’s packaged and marketed back at them. They’re fans, after all, and there's also the added, often priceless thrill of seeing your name next to the object of your affection. Getting published, even without getting paid, provides a sort of mini-fame, or at least recognition of expertise and value.
It’s a brilliant, if ethically fraught, business strategy. In slightly modified form, it’s also the engine of a solid percentage of the internet: Bustle, the EW Community, SB Nation, Bleacher Report, the Huffington Post, even BuzzFeed rely on fan-generated content for the solid percentage of their site. Fans power Tumblr; fans made Comic-Con. So why wouldn’t Simon & Schuster also tap into that font of labor?
It makes even more sense given Simon & Schuster's extensive efforts to translate successful web content into book form. It even has an imprint, Keywords, dedicated to publishing “original, high quality books by the digital world’s most talented and popular stars.” The results — like YouTube star Shane Dawson’s I Hate Myselfie — sell almost exclusively to existing fans, but that market has proven incredibly lucrative. As of September 2015, Keywords books have sold over 700,000 physical books in the United States and over a million worldwide, a figure that doesn’t even include sales of books from Tyler Oakley, Grace Helbig, and Felicia Day published by other Simon & Schuster imprints.
Yet all of those books were made in collaboration with the digital stars themselves, who then promoted them exhaustively. And while there’s a chance that Swift will affix herself to this project after the fact, her reticence to even tweet profiles that her team has sanctioned — like the October 2015 GQ profile by Chuck Klosterman — suggests otherwise. “I don’t think this is the same as getting a Taylor Swift-authored book, or a sneaky way for the publisher to make an end run around that," McKean says. It’s also not a write-around, or indicative of the end of massive advances for celebrity memoirs. “We’d much rather be Swift's publisher,” Ferrari-Adler told me. “That goes without saying.”
But if Swift's not interested, the fan-sourced book is a low-stakes experiment to see the different (and more lucrative) forms an entertainment book could take. Contrast it, for example, with Pearl Jam Twenty, released in 2014 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Pearl Jam’s album Ten and edited by Ferrari-Adler. Pearl Jam is listed as co-author, as is Cameron Crowe — the director who filmed the documentary of the same name. While the details of the contract between Pearl Jam, Crowe, and Simon & Schuster have not been publicly disclosed, the advance was likely in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. There’s also a long list of musicians who contributed to the book, some of which were likely paid for their labor, as well as hundreds of images — some from Pearl Jam’s collection, but others that presumably had to be licensed. Simon & Schuster also paid for the cover design. And advertising. And relied on their publicity team for “placement” in pertinent outlets. Those publicists and designers might be in-house resources, but they figure into the overall cost of production.
The final Swift product will likely have a similar feel to Pearl Jam Twenty, but Simon & Schuster will get it for what, in comparison, feels like a bargain basement price. $17,500 total will go to the three fan winners; additional funds will be used to reprint interviews and profiles from the likes of Klosterman, Sasha Frere-Jones, Ann Powers, Lizzie Widdicombe, Jody Rosen, and Jada Yuan. According to a source familiar with similar licensing situations, such reprints would run, at max, four figures a piece. It’s unclear how much monetary compensation will be funneled toward other fan contributors, but the fine print of the submission form explains that “providing a submission constitutes entrant’s consent to grant Sponsor a royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, create derivative works from, and display such Submissions in whole or in part.”
Simon & Schuster will also receive other, generally expensive components of book production process at a considerably lower cost. With the call for “high quality photos,” there’ll be no need to pay for professional images. (Even the book’s website uses a cropped Wikimedia image of Swift, thus avoiding any licensing fees). The cover design will come from a contest-winner. And advertising and publicity costs are essentially nil: fans, especially those featured in the book, will serve as its greatest evangelists, especially on the social media platforms where the target customers reside.
There would obviously be a market for a Swift-sanctioned scrapbook or a tell-all memoir. But fans also crave something that reflects their own skill and dedication — that suggests that the work they do is just as beautiful, and worthy of publication in vaunted things like hardcover books, as any other sort of artistic labor. Fans love the object of their devotion, in other words, but it's possible they cherish the act and community of fandom just as much, if not more.
And as wary as some might be about the potential exploitation of fan labor, many fans see the situation quite differently. Thomas Bartels, who’s already submitted his pencil drawings under the #Swiftfanbook hashtag on Twitter, would feel privileged just to have his work included. “I don’t draw for the money,” he told me. “But for the art!” Or, as another fan, who goes by the handle "Tizzle Swizzle," explained, “[receiving little compensation] is completely ok! I mean, at the end of the day the whole project is for us to enjoy.”
Is Simon & Schuster profiting from fan labor? Sure. But they’re also doing what publishers have done for centuries: making an industry out of confirming what people want to believe of themselves and those whom they most admire.
According to Simon & Schuster, each contributor will receive an unstated amount and a free copy of the final product. A previous version of this post suggested that contributors would not necessarily be compensated for their work.