A happy ending for celebrity memoirs

Who could have guessed in 1997 that Harry Potter would make millions for Bloomsbury?
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The Independent Online

Nobody ever got rich by overestimating the intelligence of the public, working as a jobbing ghost writer, or trying to predict next year's celebrity bestseller, so they say. Now, one publisher appears to have all but given up on celebrity memoirs, announcing that "we're moving away from big celebrity hit-and-miss stuff". About time.

Charlie Redmayne is the UK chief executive of HarperCollins, and he made his announcement in the wake of disappointing revenues. "I felt the company had embraced some quite risky celebrity non-fiction," he said. "A lot of these books were hugely expensive and they were not necessarily going to back-list well". Never mind "back-listing" well – or providing a long tail of sales – some of this year's titles barely front-listed. According to The Bookseller and Nielsen Bookscan, which counts sales, this year's biography and memoir market was down four per cent on 2013. And 2013 would have been a lot worse had it not been for the huge success of Alex Ferguson's My Autobiography, which surprised even experts.

As a literary editor, I can often tell when a publisher has bet the farm on a well-known author only to find that he or she can't write for toffee, because it refuses to let reviewers get their hands on the book until after the paying public have all stumped up £20 per copy. When a publisher embargoes a title until the day it arrives in shops, sometimes that's because they secretly know that it stinks.

To be fair, predicting bestsellers is not easy – if it were, nobody would ever work for a living. Who could have guessed in early 1997 that Harry Potter would make millions for Bloomsbury? Certainly not the publishers who were still pushing Potter clones in 2005 while Little, Brown was taking a chance on a book called Twilight. Nor the other publishers who were still churning out vampire romances in 2012 while Vintage was discovering 50 Shades of Grey. Nor the ones who are still sending literary editors identikit erotica even as Zoella sneaks up the bestseller charts with Girl Online, earning Penguin the highest first-week sales since records began.

Last month, Zoella's ghost writer Siobhan Curham defended the celebrity book genre on the grounds that "publishers … are now able to afford to offer more unknown writers book deals", and until recently that was publishers' reasoning, too. But if celebrity memoirs end up losing more money than they make, there's no excuse.

Last week I asked James Daunt, the MD of Waterstones, about celebrity memoirs, and he admitted that he, too, would love the gift of predicting bestsellers in advance. "But it's like roulette", he added, "and some of the chips are very expensive."

HarperCollins at last appears to be stepping away from the table. I hope other publishers will follow suit and get back to the business of publishing really good books.