Have we fallen out of love with celebrity memoirs? | Books

From actors and musicians to athletes and presenters, there are no shortage of celebrity memoirs on bookshop shelves. This year has seen new books published by a Spice Girl, a couple of Harry Potter stars and a beloved UK comedian.

But in a world where celebrities can, and do, share their every thought on social media, are their memoirs still able to pull in readers? Sales figures suggest such books might be in a rocky place, as titles by names including Jeremy Clarkson and Matthew Perry struggle to sell, despite a post-pandemic comeback from the genre.

According to industry magazine the Bookseller, hardback sales of celebrity autobiographies are down compared to last year, when titles by Billy Connolly, Bob Mortimer and Dave Grohl all sold more than 100,000 copies in the period from August to November.

The magazine attributed the decrease in sales to reasons including the high price of hardback books and the nature of the books’ content, which tended to be more hard-hitting than last year: Perry’s Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing covers his drug addiction, while Harry Potter actor Tom Felton’s Beyond the Wand discusses his depression and stints in rehab.

Tom Felton.
Tom Felton. Photograph: Mike Marsland/Getty Images for Warner Bros Studio Tour London

Suzanne Baboneau, managing director of adult publishing at Simon & Schuster UK, says that there is “continued fatigue among retailers unless the [author’s] name is immediately recognisable, they have a story, and are willing to promote authentically”.

This year’s crop of titles from the genre included posthumously published books by Alan Rickman and Paul Newman, both bona fide stars by most people’s standards. But the celebrity memoir category has always had ups and downs, partly because the term “Name” has been regularly redefined.

Kiera O’Brien, the Bookseller’s charts and data editor, says comedian Peter Kay’s The Sound of Laughter, published in 2007, and television presenter Paul O’Grady’s At My Mother’s Knee, published in 2008, “really kicked off the comedian memoir trend of the 00s-early 10s”.

As the internet led to the emergence of influencers, “YouTubers were the first wave of internet celebs to top the book charts,” says O’Brien. Rather than memoirs, though, “most social media celebs tend to go a different route” with self-help books, such as Vex King’s bestselling Good Vibes, Good Life, or cookbooks and guides, perhaps because their recent fame and short careers mean they don’t have the depth of stories needed for a good memoir.

While these YouTubers, Instagrammers and now TikTokers are famous, they might not tip quite into the celebrity category, which Dr Catherine M Robb, assistant professor of philosophy at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, says is when someone receives “high levels of public attention that is disconnected from the reason why that person is famous – so if we are interested in the private life of these individuals”.

Other people, she says, “might just be celebrities (because there is no connection to skill, talent, achievements or roles), some people might just be famous (because no one is interested in their private life), and some people might be both”.

By this definition, we might call books by Prince Harry and Michelle Obama “celebrity memoirs”. And there certainly seems to be an appetite for their books: Obama, who has just published a second memoir, sold nine copies of her 2018 title, Becoming, every second on its first day on sale in the US, and has sold 17m copies worldwide since then, while Harry’s Spare has consistently been in the Amazon charts since it opened for preorders.

Spare by Prince Harry.
Consistently in the charts … Spare by Prince Harry. Photograph: Penguin Random House

But this famous v celebrity question might be one reason why some celebrity memoirs fail to capture the public’s attention, while others fly. Robb says a good celebrity memoir “will be one in which new information is given about their private life, information that the public is not already aware of, or information that perhaps addresses some rumours or gossip about that person”.

Another success factor is how authentic the memoir seems, which, for Baboneau comes down to one thing: “For me, the most successful and long-lived celeb memoirs that we have experienced are those written by the subjects themselves,” she says, citing books from Simon & Schuster by Bruce Springsteen and Grohl.

“There is an immediate authenticity, a commitment and dedication, an ownership, a responsibility towards the words on the page. Ghostwritten autobiographies – you can feel a distance between subject and writer, however good and industrious and experienced the ghost.”

There are exceptions to that rule, of course – Obama’s Becoming was ghostwritten, as was Alex Ferguson’s memoir. Published in 2013 after Ferguson retired as manager of Manchester United football club, My Autobiography, ghostwritten by Paul Hayward, became the fastest-selling nonfiction book on record at the time of its publication. Its success is believed to be partly because Ferguson was a largely private person, and partly because his success at the football club meant the book was also seen as a kind of business guide.

Miriam Margolyes.
National treasure status … Miriam Margolyes. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/the Guardian

But while there are huge successes, the celebrity memoir market is generally more of a rollercoaster than a smooth ride. Just before the pandemic, says O’Brien, “it seemed celebrity memoirs had gone for ever, and it was all about the professional confessional and the lives of ‘normal people’”. That included books such as Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt, and The Secret Barrister, which gave an insider’s look at the failings of the UK’s criminal justice system. Celebrities were also increasingly turning their hands to children’s books or adult fiction instead of autobiographies.

Since the pandemic, however, celebrity memoirs “seem to have made a comeback”, says O’Brien. She describes books by Mortimer, Connolly and Miriam Margolyes, whose This Much Is True also sold well last year. These celebrities “embody that cosy national treasure status that makes their memoirs a go-to comfort read”, in a similar way to Kay and O’Grady’s successes.

But after last year’s highs, this year the biggest seller for the same period is Clarkson’s Diddly Squat: ’Til the Cows Come Home, which has sold 60,616 copies, fewer than half of last year’s bestseller, while second placed is Perry’s on 35,931 copies. Other celebrity memoirs that have been published in recent months, such as Mel C’s Who I Am, Rylan’s Ten, Lenny Henry’s Rising to the Surface and Tyson Fury’s Gloves Off, have sold even fewer copies. Baboneau puts it succinctly: “For every major win, there are hundreds of also-rans.”

Still, “celebrity culture is all pervasive”, says Robb. “The reason why we read memoirs is to glimpse a portion of a celebrity’s private life that we have not previously been afforded access to.”

“It might be that social media allows us access to celebrity’s lives in a way that makes memoirs less appealing, as we will already know enough information about that person,” she adds. “This might mean that a time will come when there is no longer a market for memoirs.”

With Harry’s Spare due next month, and sure to sell in huge amounts despite a lack of enthusiasm from independent bookshops, the publishing industry is betting that market continues to exist for a while longer yet.