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?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 23, 2013 9:22PM (EST)

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.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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