Fame or fiction: Our obsession with ‘artista’ books

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The power of celebrity extends to television, film, music, advertisements, magazines — and now, even literature (if only in the loosest sense of the word). What is it about these ‘artista’ books that makes them bestseller material? Art by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At around this time last year, while I was out passing time in a mall, I got a text from my girlfriend asking me to buy her two of something I had never heard of. Her message simply read, “Pabili ng 2 Besties.” But what on earth or under it was a Bestie? Was it a kind of lipstick or perhaps a brand of confectionery? As I was about to find out, though, it was neither. I barely had time to look for it at a cosmetics shop or a candy stall before I received a follow-up text telling me that I should instead head to a bookstore, given that “Besties” was, in fact, a book by Solenn Heussaff and Georgina Wilson. As it turned out, my girlfriend and her very own “bestie” were fans — or at least social-media followers — of the two It girls, and they were raring to get their hands on the publication that bore their favorite socialites’ names.

“Besties” is but one of the curious crop of nonfiction books authored by or otherwise attributed to local celebrities that have been topping the bestsellers list in the past year or so. If the most recent posting by the largest bookstore chain in the country is to be believed, there is definitely a burgeoning demand for such books: Every single one of the 10 listed titles in National Book Store’s May bestsellers for nonfiction Philippine publications is by an artista or non-literary celebrity of some sort.

That these artista books sell well may very well be ascribed to their affordability, with their individual prices normally going for as low as ₱150 and not exceeding ₱300 — significantly cheaper than their imported paperback and hardcover counterparts, which often take the form of tell-all and comedic memoirs. But their commercial success, which is decidedly divorced from their nigh nonexistent critical reception, owes a lot to their simply being what they are: celebrity books.

Artista Books - 1 “#Basa” by Brod Pete inhabits a subgenre of local celebrity books that subsists on mass-market humor. Among its ilk are “Kwentaxi” by Mae Paner aka Juana Change, “‘Day, Hard! Lakas ng Loob, Kapal ng Mukha” by Annabelle Rama, and “Bakit Hindi Ka Crush ng Crush Mo?” by Ramon Bautista.  

For better or worse, celebrity books sell themselves. The names and faces on their covers are their own brands. They are barefaced exercises in self-promotion, with a kind of self-sustaining influencer marketing campaign built in. Already, the very mug shots or blocks of text announcing their supposed authors make for high-profile endorsements. A guy goes inside a bookstore intending to buy only a cartridge of printer ink, but on his way to the office-supplies section a book with an image of his favorite comedian catches his eye. Sure enough, he leaves not only with an ink refill but also with a copy of “#Basa” by Herman “Isko” Salvador, aka Brod Pete of “Bubble Gang” fame.

A collection of knee-slappers of the sort that’s associated with corner drunks, “#Basa” inhabits a subgenre of local celebrity books that subsists on mass-market humor. Among its ilk are “Kwentaxi” by Mae Paner aka Juana Change, a catalog of conversations with cab drivers; “‘Day, Hard! Lakas ng Loob, Kapal ng Mukha” by Annabelle Rama, a compendium of practical advice on love and life; and the trilogy of relationship-centric books by Ramon Bautista, “Bakit Hindi Ka Crush ng Crush Mo?”, “Help!!! Ayoko Na Sa Syota Ko!”, and “My True Friends.”

Content-wise, apart from their jocularity, Rama and Bautista’s books wouldn’t be out of place when put side by side with other local celebrity books in the self-help category. There you’ll find Bianca Gonzalez dispensing tips on how to survive growing up in “Paano Ba ’To?”, which also features “insights” from her famous friends, such as Atom Araullo, Anne Curtis, Luis Manzano, and Marian Rivera. There’s also a dating guidebook by Alex Gonzaga titled “Dear Alex, We’re Dating. Tama, Mali?! Love, Catherine,” which follows a similar book called “Dear Alex, Break Na Kami. Paano?! Love, Catherine.”

Artista Books - 2 Local celebrity books in the self-help category include Bianca Gonzalez’s “Paano Ba ’To?” and Alex Gonzaga’s “Dear Alex, We’re Dating. Tama, Mali?! Love, Catherine.”  

Help in the kitchen is another thing being offered by local celebrities through their books, with the chief example being a cookbook by Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo and a similar culinary volume on the way from Regine Velasquez-Alcasid.

And then there are the so-called style bibles — the second part of the term itself suggesting the religious dimension that the buyers of such books tend to border on in their adoration of their icons. In addition to “Besties,” filed under this category are the likes of “This is Me, Love Marie” by Heart Evangelista, “Stylized” by Liz Uy, and “Everyday Kath: 365 Ways to Be a Teen Queen” by Kathryn Bernardo.

There is a good deal to be said for the fact that practically none of the celebrity books that are raking in pesos is a work of fiction. Most probably, it’s for the simple reason that fans already get their fair share of make-believe from their idols’ movies and TV shows, so they’d rather have the books be an extension or revelation of the celebrities’ selves in real life.

Artista Books - 3 Filed under the makeup and style bible category are the likes of “Besties” by Solenn Heussaff and Georgina Wilson, “This is Me, Love Marie” by Heart Evangelista, “Everyday Kath: 365 Ways to Be a Teen Queen” by Kathryn Bernardo, and “Stylized” by Liz Uy.  

As it happens, “real” is the buzzword that fuels the excitement surrounding the release of arguably the “celebritiest” (read: most bankable) of all local celebrity books to ever come out: “Team Real” by Nadine Lustre and James Reid, which apparently sold out online weeks before its launch yesterday, June 19. Touted as “Your All-Access Pass” into the world of the wildly popular “love team,” the book purports to be a chronicle of the love story of the couple on and off screen.

Fans could be forgiven for thinking that these books were all written or otherwise put together by the celebrities themselves. But at least among people who are acquainted with the inner workings of the publishing industry, it’s something of an open secret that such publications are largely ghostwritten. (Interestingly, the concept of ghostwriting takes on a whole new meaning when viewed in light of the posthumous publication of “Direk 2 Da Poynt” by Wenn Deramas, which tells his life story from the perspectives of the people who knew him and from the point of view of the late director himself.)

But there’s just no stopping followers and admirers from getting their hands on their favorite celebrities’ books, whether or not they’re remotely aware of the (non)issue of dubious authorship. If nothing else, these publications are tangible tributes to be placed on coffee tables as glorified magazines or conversation starters, preserved in fan shrines among other memorabilia and merchandise, and, of course, posted on social media in a show of flat-laid pride and loyalty.

Artista Books - 4 Touted as “Your All-Access Pass” into the world of the wildly popular “love team,” “Team Real” by Nadine Lustre and James Reid purports to be a chronicle of the love story of the couple on and off screen.  

The current artista books bubble that is apparently buoying the local publishing industry, while far from encouraging a wide range of literary pursuits in a country with a 96-percent literacy rate, is nonetheless a welcome development. The trouble is that, like any bubble, it’s liable to burst. They can only continue to flourish and top the bestseller lists for as long as their subjects cum nominal authors enjoy a considerable degree of fame. As a certain magical memoirist once said: “Fame is a fickle friend … Celebrity is as celebrity does.”