I'm a celebrity memoir...get me out of here!

Slump in sales suggests ghost-written confessionals are past their sell-by-date

James Hanning,Andrew Johnson,Arifa Akbar
Saturday 28 November 2009 01:00

It is a literary genre about "how I became famous" that readers have found endlessly riveting and which has made a fortune for those celebrities who decide to tell all in return for a seven-figure advance.

But the love affair with the fame memoir could finally be coming to an end. After the phenomenal critical and commercial success of autobiographies by the likes of Michael Parkinson and Julie Walters, there are now signs that readers this Christmas would rather unwrap a copy of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight trilogy than Ant and Dec's saucily-titled Ooh! What a Lovely Pair.

Literary agents have branded it a "disastrous" autumn for the celebrity memoir genre and the book publisher Hachette UK has announced that it is trimming back its celebrity roster. The total value of hardback celebrity titles in the top 50 this year is, so far, £3.3m a significant decrease on 2008's figure of £4.6m.

Jonathan Lloyd, chief executive of Curtis Brown, suggested this season's memoirs – which include sequels by Peter Kay and Katie Price as well as autobiographies by Jo Brand, Chris Evans and Frankie Boyle – lacked the sensational factor and their comparatively unremarkable sales may impact on the advances that such celebrities received in the future.

"In the end, you can't fool the public. They expect to have the real book and the majority of offers this autumn are not real books, certainly not 'must-haves'," he said.

Others suggested that there was a saturation of "bottom-of-the-barrel" celebrities who were riding on the coat-tales of the genre's success, and that publishers were now returning to more traditional non-fiction books.

What is noticeable on the Neilson BookScan bestseller list this week is the prominence of fiction over memoirs – Dan Brown, Meyer and John Grisham's latest novels dominated the top 10, with Ant and Dec's book the first memoir on the chart at number seven. Last year, memoirs by far dominated the book charts.

Andre Breedt from Neilson said: "The autobiography is behaving very differently this year compared to last year and it's difficult to figure out why. Fiction has been very strong when last year it wasn't as strong. Last year there were more autobiographies on the bestseller charts," he said.

Overall, the market is down, year on year, he added, with consumer sales down by 1 per cent this year.

Liz Thomson, editor of BookBrunch, welcomed what she hoped was the end of an era. "What really gets me with regards to many of these memoirs is that they claim to give the so-called celebrities a voice when they are so often the voice of their ghost-writers. It's the aspect of cynicism in these publications that I hate. People are being paid a huge amount of money to write this nonsense, at the expense of new writers and quality fiction," she said.

Last year's big sellers were memoirs by Peter Kay, Dawn French and Paul O'Grady, and this week in 2008, O'Grady's was the best selling biography, with 46,920 copies sold. This year, by comparison, Ant and Dec's book has sold 25,880 in the same week. The drastic reduction suggests that the public appetite is waning for first-person celebrity stories.

Saturday Night Peter – Kay's follow up to The Sound of Laughter, which was first released in 2006 and was one of the biggest selling debut memoirs (selling well over one million copies) – sold just 16,884 this week.

But Jon Howells, from Waterstones, said sales figures have shown signs that readers were buying these books later than they were last year, but at a faster rate, possibly in preparation for Christmas.

"There will be an awful lot of people who will wake up with Jeremy Clarkson's or Frankie Boyle's autobiography on Christmas morning," he said.

Fallen stars: The books that struggled to sell

*Standing Out, by Katie Price

Price released the first of three autobiographies, Being Jordan, in 2004. Initially turned down by mainstream publishing houses after demanding a £1m advance, she was signed up by the publisher John Blake and sold 97,000 copies in little over a year, hitting number one. Her second, Jordan: A Whole New World, detailing her wedding and family life, reached number two, selling 198,000 copies. It was followed by Pushed to the Limit. Standing Out is not quite an autobiography but her personal approach to fashion. It sits at No 50 on Neilson's BookScan.

*Saturday Night Peter, by Peter Kay

The comedian's first memoir, The Sound of Laughter, has sold over a million hardbacks since 2006. It was hoped that his sequel, which charts the "hilarious journey" of the stand-up comic, would repeat the success of the first but it has not performed so well. This week, it sold 16,900 copies.

*Ooh! What a Lovely Pair, by Ant and Dec

The TV presenter duo's first memoir can in no way be regarded as a flop – it has so far sold 137,000 since its release in September – but it sits at number seven in the bestseller list, a far cry from this week last year when Paul O'Grady's memoir At My Mother's Knee was at number two, having sold 46,900 in a week.

*It's Not What You Think, by Chris Evans

The memoir was launched with Ozzy Osbourne's and Peter Kay's with great fanfare on Super Thursday and was predicted to top the charts. But the story of "how one council estate lad made good" was diluted amid a flood of bestselling fiction and is at 41 on the bestseller list. Evans plans a sequel next year.

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