The Secret to Reality Book Success

Jason Schneider

It takes more than the usual TMI on TV to become a best-selling author.

When it was announced in the same week that Bethenny Frankel's A Place of Yes had debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list and that Lauren Conrad had signed a new three-book deal with HarperCollins, their place as the two stars of the reality-TV book club was confirmed. (Related: How Bethenny Frankel used her reality show to make $120 million.)

Unlike their Hills or Real Housewives co-stars or even the Jersey Shore phenoms, Frankel and Conrad have shown that smart choices, authentic voices and a fresh offering can turn writing into a profitable activity.

In addition to the lucrative royalties, Frankel and Conrad's publishing successes have helped them build their broader brands. Conrad's literary agent Matthew Elblonk says the books have been a way for Lauren "to express herself and to continue an ongoing dialogue with her fans." (Related: How Rock Music Is Saving Books.)

Frankel entered bookstores in March 2009 with Naturally Thin: Unleash Your Skinny
Girl
and Free Yourself from a Lifetime of Dieting and followed it eight months later with The Skinnygirl Dish: Easy Recipes for Your Naturally Thin Life. She received an advance in the $250,000 to $500,000 range for both books. According to Simon & Schuster, the books have sold a combined 480,000 copies to date. The success of the books gave Frankel the platform to develop Skinnygirl into a consumer brand.

Conrad is a reality publishing juggernaut. Publishers Weekly puts the total 2010 sales of her young adult trilogy L.A. Candy (the wink-wink fictional tale of an ordinary girl who becomes the star of a reality show) at just over 1 million copies. In October, Conrad released Lauren Conrad Style, a hardcover fashion guide, which sold 173,000 by the end of 2010.

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"When I began working on the first book, it really was a labor of love," Conrad says. "Never did I imagine how receptive my fans would be."

But Patrick Price, an editorial consultant and former senior editor at Simon Spotlight, says that publishing the novels was a savvy strategy for getting Conrad's TV fans to migrate to print, and it clearly benefitted Lauren Conrad Style in the notoriously tough beauty and style segment. It also certainly puts her in a stronger position for the launch of Paper Crown, her rebooted fashion line, this fall.

None of Frankel's or Conrad's castmates have been able to replicate their publishing success. University of Southern California assistant professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, the author of Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity, is not surprised. Frankel and Conrad were smart about moving into books early and using print to reinforce and expand the audience's image of them. Now, they "fill the space the others want to occupy, and there's only room for one" star from each show.

Books by Real Housewives' Jill Zarin, Danielle Staub, Vicki Gunvalson, NeNe Leakes and Alex McCord all sold fewer than 10,000 copies each, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about three-quarters of all U.S. sales. Only Teresa Giudice's cookbook, Skinny Italian: Eat It and Enjoy It -- Live La Bella Vita and Look Great, Too!, which had 2010 sales of 107,612, according to Publishers Weekly, has bucked the trend. Conrad's The Hills co-stars Whitney Port and Lo Bosworth have also faltered. Nielsen BookScan reports that True Whit: Designing a Life of Style, Beauty, and Fun has sold about 6,000 copies since its Feb. 1 debut and The Lo Down: Life and Love in the Hollywood Hills about 6,000 since early January.

Even the breakout stars of Jersey Shore have had middling success with their books. Jenni "JWOWW" Farley's The Rules According to JWOWW: Shore-Tested Secrets on Landing a Mint Guy, Staying Fresh to Death, and Kicking the Competition to the Curb has sold about 20,000 copies according to Nielsen BookScan (far short of the approximately 70,000 sales needed to recoup her estimated $250,000 advance) and Here's the Situation: A Guide to Creeping on Chicks, Avoiding Grenades, and Getting in Your GTL on the Jersey Shore by Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino has moved only 15,000 copies since November. Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi's hyped novel, A Shore Thing, has sold about 35,000 copies.

Price says book buyers are pretty savvy. "They can tell quickly if an author is trying to make a quick buck." Agent Elblonk echoes Price, "You can capture a moment in time with one book, but the goal with reality clients should always be to build an industry within the industry."             

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