How rock music is saving books

2011-04-27 00:00

FROM Keith Richards’ assertion that he really did snort his father’s ashes to Sammy Hagar’s revelation that he’s been abducted by aliens, out-there autobiographies by ageing rock stars are helping to fuel the ailing book-publishing business.

“There’s clearly a demand,’’ says Mauro DiPreta, vice-president of It Books, which published Hagar’s current New York Times bestseller Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock. The former Van Halen frontman was paid about $3 million (Richards pocketed a reported $7 million for his memoir, Life).

“What you have with a book is a memento,” DiPreta adds. “You can buy a CD, but you’ve probably heard the songs many times already. You can bid on a used Eric Clapton guitar. But for $25, you get to hear all the stories, not only behind the songs but how these guys lived.’’

Literary agent Sarah Lazin, who specialises in music-themed titles, says: “Publishers are looking for an automatic fan base so they can just plug into it. Right now, I have four deals with a major agency where they have the star and I have the writer. That’s unprecedented.’’

The boom is good news for imprints like HarperCollins’s It, which also published autobiographies by fired Guns N’ Roses drummer and Celebrity Rehab graduate Steven Adler, Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine and Runaways singer Cherie Currie. Ghost writers are in high demand and can get bet­ween $25 000 and $200 000 for their services. Most deals average between $75 000 and $100 000.

Rock memoirs are a ray of light for booksellers struggling with the twin challenges of a recession and the transition to e-books. Although overall sales were up 3,6% in 2010, publishers struggled to find non-fiction hits. Non-fiction titles with sales of 100 000 or more were down nearly 20% from a 2008 high of 132. The 2010 list is top-heavy with politicians and political commentators (George W. Bush, Glenn Beck) and comedians (Jon Stewart, Chelsea Handler). The exception is Richards’ Life, which ranked number four.

But some publishing observers are concerned about overkill. “When you have the drummer who played on two Guns N’ Roses albums putting out a book that didn’t do that badly, that’s saying maybe this glut will burn up the market,’’ says Neil Strauss, co-author of the gold standard in rock autobiographies, 2001’s Mötley Crüe tome The Dirt, and head of HarperCollins’ Igniter imprint. His latest book, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, a compilation from a career of musician interviews, was published in March.

But DiPreta disagrees. “I don’t think it’s a case of, ‘I read Keith Richards’ Life, so I’m not going to read Steven Tyler’s book when it comes out in a couple months’. These stories are unique. They feed people’s passion because you’re talking about their memories, the fabric of your teenage years and coming of age. That’s what we’re trying to capture.’’

Some music artists simply don’t buy into memoir lore, though. Billy Joel said on March 31 that he was returning his $3 million advance to Harper-Collins. “It took working on writing a book to make me realise that I’m not all that interested in talking about the past,’’ he said. A source said that Joel’s manuscript, scheduled for publication in June, is through the editing process and well into production.

Lazin says an option is rarely cancelled. Instead, publishers hope their star will change his or her mind. “I’ve heard that Patti Smith was under contract for 10 years until she did Just Kids,’’ she says. It became a bestseller, moving 158 000 copies.

So who is buying these tomes? “Boomers are still big book buyers and they’re a large part of the audience,’’ Lazin says.

From attending book signings by the likes of Mustaine and Hagar, DiPreta notes that the crowds are composed of mostly men and people for whom the bookstore is a destination, but he also marvels at the multigenerational appeal.

“You’ll find parents with their high-school or college-age kids, just like when you go to a concert. They kind of want to share that experience.’’ (It’s interesting to note, though, that the Sh*t — My Dad Says book — based on a Twitter feed — has sold about as many units as Richards’ tome, but seven times the number of e-books.)

Likewise, these authors’ motivations are rarely frivolous or vain, DiPreta says. “There’s something really seductive and powerful about putting something between two covers and saying: ‘This is my version of events. You can refer to this as the bible of how I lived my life’.”

— Reuters.

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