Last week’s entertaining and inspiring masterclass featured industry legend and Weidenfeld & Nicolson publisher, Alan Samson, revealing the secrets of celebrity publishing. Kicking off with a brief history of the genre, Samson took us from Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints and tales of 18th century highwaymen, through tossed-together collections of tired anecdotes, towards the highly-crafted tales of today’s celebs struggling through adversity.
“Everything changes,” says Samson and nowhere is that more relevant than in the world of celebrity – and the genre of celebrity biography publishing. Where once everybody wanted to work in fiction, now you see job ads seeking editors who can predict the “most influential popular culture figure” of the year. And ever since 9/11, those celebrity figures have been encouraged to produce narrative journeys exploring their own personal traumas. Other recent trends include:
- a focus on stories of childhood and young adulthood rather than cradle-to-grave chronicles (think Peter Kay and Paul O’Grady),
- the growth of fictional celebrity stories, through TV tie-ins with shows like The Thick of It and Mad Men, and
- a greater acceptance by the public of ghost or co-writers. “It’s a fact of retail life”, says Samson. Whether it’s Kellogg’s cornflakes, James Patterson’s team-written novels or the continued publication of new Jason Bourne thrillers despite the death of the original author, “people trust the brand”.
Plus, ‘ghosts’ these days are excellent writers, more likely to be on a portion of the profits than a measly one-off fee. The best of the bunch – who the main publishers always fight over – have a “ventriloquist’s ability to capture voices”, from a Cabinet minister to footballer Paul Gascoigne. While ghosts are usually only referenced (if at all) with a discreet nod in the acknowledgements, usually for “correcting my punctuation” or somesuch, more and more co-writers are openly credited. Samson’s own big seller this year – Keith Richards’ Life – credits a co-writer on the title page and back cover flap.
Ignoring the fact that one of Samson’s celebrity ‘authors’ seemed to convince herself that she really had written her ghost-produced work, many celebrities really do write their own books: the “lovely” Julie Walters, Helen Mirren and Paul O’Grady to name some of the best. Not surprising really. Comics write their own material; actors (like lawyers) appreciate words and are often, says Samson, “natural writers”. Anyone who’s appeared on stage or on film is also used to being directed – which might be one of the reasons he cites actors as the best type of celebrity to work with. We’re sworn to secrecy on who’s regarded as the worst, or the most needy.
Actors may be the easiest to deal with, but who proffers the most potential sales? It helps if you don’t exclude anyone: a quality to which Samson attributes Michael McIntyre’s publishing success. And the public definitely don’t want you to be too smug, or too self-pitying. But while being likeable – or as Samson himself rephrases, being “perceived to be likeable” – was once the main success criterion, it’s now important to have something to say. This isn’t always a given, especially when follow-up volumes are often churned out in what Samson describes as “indecent haste”. Yes, figures like David Niven, Dirk Bogarde and Peter O’Toole all produced multi-volume memoirs, but over periods of years or decades, not months.
Listening to Samson’s talk of hanging out with Hollywood big hitters, rock gods and soapstars, you could be forgiven for thinking that all he does is create celeb bestsellers. Across a list of 60 or so frontlist titles publishing each year, however, only five would be classified as celebrity bios. It’s an occupational hazard that this small percentage is what most people – even his colleagues – want Samson to talk about. He’s happy to oblige, though: “it’s all part of the debate. As long as people are talking about books I don’t mind”. Plus, if one or two of the five do exceptionally well, few will question the odd slow-seller on the rest of the list: Keith Richards and co therefore subsidise a diverse range of titles that might not otherwise see the light of day.
So what’s next in this ever-changing world? “There’ll always be celebrity books,” says Samson, “but they will change in form”. In the short-term he predicts a move towards books recounting a single episode from a life, in the vein of Lynn Barber’s An Education. Whatever the next turn, Samson’s sure to be leading the way.