Charles Ramsey’s publishing future: The uncertain economics of viral-hero book deals

Cleveland hero Charles Ramsey gets set to pen a memoir -- but will anyone read it?

Topics: Ariel Castro, Charles Ramsey, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, Elizabeth Smart,

Charles Ramsey's publishing future: The uncertain economics of viral-hero book deals

He became an overnight star when he helped rescue three women and one child from years of imprisonment at the hands of Ariel Castro — and then he gave a disarmingly matter-of-fact account of what happened to the press. As he famously said last spring of his life-changing encounter with Amanda Berry, “Either she’s homeless, or she’s got problems. That’s the only reason she’d run to a black man.” And now Charles Ramsey is about to become an author. He’s announced a deal with Cleveland publisher Gray & Co. “for a memoir of his life before, during and after the rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight and Berry’s 6-year-old daughter from the infamous house of horrors on Seymour Avenue.”

In the months since the story broke, the Cleveland kidnapping case has prompted a deluge of media attention and a subsequent scramble to get those involved to sell their tales. Last week, the New York Post gleefully wrote that the three women who’d been held captive for years by Castro were competing to get their “tell-alls” out and citing “tension” between them. Michelle Knight has a book coming out in the spring of 2014; Berry and DeJesus are slated to release their joint memoir in 2015.

Morbid as it is to contemplate, one can understand the marketability of books by the victims. This fall, Elizabeth Smart published “My Story,” her account of her nine months in captivity as a teenager and her subsequent transformation into an advocate for others who’ve endured similar ordeals. The book is currently #5 on the New York Times bestseller list.  That there are agents and publishers eager to turn Castro’s victims’ stories into similarly lucrative titles isn’t surprising. That they would extend that eagerness to those around the periphery of the tale is also no shocker. But the question of whether or not anyone will buy it seems almost an afterthought. He did something that got a lot of attention. Isn’t that enough?

It could work. When Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger became a national hero after the 2009 “miracle” landing on the Hudson River, he quickly inked a $3 million two-book deal — and became a bestselling author. But Ramsey, who has now left his dishwashing job to collaborate full time with writer Randy Nyerges on his story, will have to offer more than a story everybody’s already seen a few million times on YouTube. And he has to acknowledge that like plenty of individuals who rose to heroism in a moment of bravery, he is not a flawless person. Shortly after he gained an international spotlight, the Smoking Gun uncovered his checkered past — there were convictions for drugs and receiving stolen property. He was “charged with and served time for multiple domestic violence counts.” Yet that’s what he now hopes makes the book alluring. His collaborator Nyerges teases, “Charles says outrageous things, but what a story he has. America doesn’t know yet how truly brilliant this guy is. What you saw on TV doesn’t even begin to tell the story.”

Ramsey may well be a brilliant storyteller, but the publishing world’s desperation to turn a moment of Internet fame into something people want to purchase and read is hit or miss. Last week, blogger Jessica Shyba inked a book deal based on her Instagram feed of her toddler and her puppy’s naps. Sometimes it works. Exhibit A: Amazon’s current number one children’s poetry book is Ylvis’s “What Does the Fox Say?” Sometimes it doesn’t lead to blockbusters. You may be forgiven if you hadn’t noticed viral star Ted Williams’ memoir “A Golden Voice: How Faith, Hard Work, and Humility Brought Me from the Streets to Salvation.”

Ramsey did a spectacular thing — and he followed up his brave action with surprising humor and candor. But the publishing world’s continued assumption that a degree of fame, even brief fame, translates into guaranteed readers is almost naively hopeful. In a few springtime minutes, Charles Ramsey became a hero. Whether that makes him a successful author is yet to be seen.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...