New books this month from the likes of Jada Pinkett Smith, Britney Spears, John Stamos and Jeopardy! champion Amy Schneider have made the headlines, often more than once, and not always for happy reasons. Pinkett Smith, for instance, disclosed in her book that she and her superstar husband, Will, have been separated since 2016. Spears revealed, among other things, that she had an abortion while dating Justin Timberlake. Meanwhile Full House alum Stamos recalled catching an ex in bed with Tony Danza, of all people, and Schneider wrote about struggling with her body image before she completed her gender transition. All of this was published before fans had even had time to buy and read the books.
So does this help sales or maybe even hurt them, since people no longer have to buy the books for the juicy stories?
Carrie Thornton, who's vice president and publisher of Dey Street Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, says it's the former. And she should know. In the last few years, Dey Street has published memoirs from celebs including Gabrielle Union, Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson and Jessica Simpson. They're also behind Pinkett Smith's book, which Thornton edited.
As Thornton tells it, publishers do sometimes consider the potential for over-saturation. They plot the release of excerpts or audio clips and other publicity carefully, especially when it comes to the very first stories that come out about an upcoming book. They want that to "set the tone" as well as they can, she says.
"But publicity is publicity," Thornton says. "And when your book penetrates culture and the zeitgeist, that's a really huge success in a lot of ways... It's a very noisy world, and it's great when a book really becomes something that everybody's talking about. It always feels good."
"Publicity is publicity, and when your book penetrates culture and the zeitgeist, that's a really huge success in a lot of ways
Madeleine Morel, whose agency 2M Communications Ltd. represents ghostwriters who collaborate with celebrity authors, cites Prince Harry's book, Spare, that was released to much fanfare in January. It sold 3.2 million copies worldwide in its very first week, despite blanket coverage of what was in it.
"For the right celebrity," she says, "people are always interested in reading more."
It helps too if a book is well written, because it could net positive press. Morel cites memoirs from Viola Davis, who released Finding Me last year, and the late Cicely Tyson, author of 2021's Just As I Am, as examples of books that received rave reviews.
Not every celebrity memoir is a hit, though. Both Morel and Thornton say that having a celebrity who's going to work with a publisher to promote a book but who also creates something worth promoting at all, is key.
The 2023 celebrity memoir
Thornton says authors have to be willing to expand beyond what someone can find on Instagram.
"What was a celebrity memoir 20 years ago, 15 years ago, is very from what a celebrity memoir has to be today, because of social media and because of the accessibility that the public has to celebrities," Thornton says. "There's just so much more available. Celebrities are very much at our fingertips. We feel like we know them."
As the host of Red Table Talk, her former show that tackled subjects including race, sex and addiction, Pinkett Smith has experience with this.
"She is a deeply spiritual person who's read extensively and has studied extensively and she's had this long journey through her life... she's really given it a lot of thought," Thornton says. "So she wanted to give back, especially to her female readers."
When asked about the process of working with Pinkett Smith, Thornton says, "It's sort of like, well, you're gonna take this leap and do this. You might as well do it for real."
The Jessica Simpson example
As Thornton sees it, it all starts with a story that's relatable to readers and compelling enough that it would work without fame. Then comes the book clubs and fairs and conferences.
"We need to know that when we send somebody out, that they're really gonna be our partners in the promotion of their book," Thornton says. "And more and more that means not just the traditional five days of publicity. That means a really long partnership that begins with acquisition that goes for months and months after. If the book is something that they're incredibly proud of and we're all partners together, then we can have a really long and successful and fruitful situation where the book is something that they're promoting for a very long time because it's changed the public's perception of them. And that's a great thing to happen."
"She was someone who really was just regarded as like a C-level, blond pop star from the '90s who had taken this turn into branding and clothing," Thornton says. "And the book, I think, really repositioned her as someone who is a mogul, a business person who had a really deeply difficult struggle in her journey."
Simpson's candidness paid off when her book became a New York Times bestseller.
Thornton says her goal with all celebrity memoirs is to make it much more than a headline, but a beloved book that truly moves people.