Trending: Read 'em and weep... the grisly life of the post-mortem biog

The funeral's barely over before the tribute books start appearing – expect Whitney Houston's any day now. John Walsh examines an ugly industry

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Whitney Houston died, early and in squalid conditions, at 3.55pm on Saturday 18 February. She was buried six days later on Thursday 23 February. And the tie-in, or perhaps some might say cash-in, book is due out on 12 March.

The work of one Mark Bego ("author of more than 50 bestselling books on rock'n'roll and showbusiness"), it's being raced through the presses straight into paperback with a first run of 50,000 copies.

Fans of the singer will be pleased to hear that "it cuts through the tabloid gossip... leaving no detail of Whitney's turbulent life – or tragic death – untold". The publishers are trawling the newspapers to sell first serial rights.

Does that strike you as a tad unseemly? Indecently hasty? Remember what Hamlet said about the speed at which his mother married his uncle after his father's death?

"...within a month,

Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears

Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,

She married. O, most wicked speed..."

Substitute the word "published" for "married" there and you may well ask: should a publisher, not two and a half weeks after Whitney's burial, be galloping to be first to make money by flogging an "instant book" to her grieving adherents?

Four years ago, Whitney's estranged husband, Bobby Brown, was negotiating to write a tell-all book about their life together. It didn't work out – but now it just might. "In 2008, the interest in a book on Whitney Houston wasn't that great," an American publisher told the Huffington Post.

"Whitney had fallen off the radar back then ... but now, following her tragic death, the market has changed. Now is the time for a book that details an honest look into the life of Whitney."

Go Bobby, go grab that market. Mr Brown will simply follow what appears to be a veritable procession of literary ambulance-chasers spurred into action when a famous showbiz name kicks the bucket. Publishers such as John Blake, Michael O'Mara and Plexus specialise in cheap books written about the latest heart-throb, singer or sportsman, whacked into print without much ceremony, piled high and sold cheap. Their authors are experts at the out-of-the-blue commission, the clearing the decks, the two-week deadline, the 15-hour-a-day writing regimen, buoyed up by Red Bull and Marlboro Lights.

The death of Princess Diana in 1997 started this tawdry tradition, but lately it's gone supernova. Michael Jackson died, tragically early, of a drug-related cardiac arrest, on 25 June 2009. He was buried at Forest Lawn, Los Angeles, on 7 July, 2009. Incredibly, the first instant books about his life began to emerge even before his wasted, needle-torn body was consigned to the earth: Michael Jackson: King of Pop, Michael Jackson: Life of a Legend, Michael Jackson: Legend, Hero, Icon came whizzing through the presses.

The authors could claim few special revelations or personal insights. James Aldis, author of Legend, Hero, Icon, mentioned among his credentials as a Jackson scholar, that he "was among the many fans to have bought tickets for the London O2 arena performances".

When Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose in Manhattan on 22 January 2008, it took everyone by surprise. That didn't stop John Blake Publishing announcing on 1 February – that's 10 days post mortem – that a biography, the emetically titled Heath Ledger: His Beautiful Life and Mysterious Death by John McShane, would be cracked out at top speed by April.

When Amy Winehouse died on 23 July 2011, it was a surprise but not a shock. Nor was it surprising that a biography appeared in a few weeks. It turned out that it wasn't a new book, but an update of a 2008 biography by Chas Newkey-Burden. He seems to be something of a leading exponent of the instant/ unauthorised/ opportunistic celebrity life – recent titles from his pen have included Adele: the Biography, Tom Daley: The Unauthorised Biography, Justin Beiber: the Unauthorised Biography, Brad and Angelina and Dannii Minogue – but the speed of his update surprised the book world. Not for long, though: by 27 July it had been joined by The Amy Winehouse Quiz Book by Hayley and Chris Cowlin; by 22 August you could download Remembering Amy: The Life and Times of Amy Winehouse to your Kindle; on 5 October came another knocked-off life, Amy Winehouse: A Losing Game by Mick O'Shea, described by reviewers as "a shameless cuttings job" who also claimed that "there's no evidence that he ever met her."

True fans, said The Independent, "may have to wait a little longer for the real thing." Perhaps they're waiting for Amy: My Daughter by Mitch Winehouse. It's due out this summer, having been commissioned shortly after her death, and announced to the world by HarperCollins on 12 October. All proceeds to go to the Amy Winehouse Foundation.

"I feel that I need to write this book to tell the true story of Amy and to help with my personal recovery," Mr Winehouse explained. Which might bring this sorry chapter to a close.