Should publishers commission an autobiography from Mrs May?

The impending departure of the Prime Minister has sparked debate on social media about whether or not her memoir should be commissioned (the general opinion seems to be not). Meanwhile the long-postponed autobiography of her predecessor is finally coming this September. But will there be an appetite for it? All this has drawn attention to the significant risks publishers face when commissioning political biography.

Of course it’s very common for politicians to write a book in order to bring themselves to wider public attention. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had two titles apiece by the time they sought office, and at least four of the current Conservative leadership candidates (Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart) have published books. For publishers, given the significant investment costs, it’s a matter of spotting the winners and those likely to remain in the public eye, as the cogitations of passed-over leaders are not particularly saleable. 

At Kingston University we have been considering this for a while, our interest catalysed by the significant side-effect that President Trump has had on the political publishing sector; sales and new titles are burgeoning at the moment.  So we set out to consider what publishers can learn from the publishing history of #45 to prompt future commissioning decisions.

We noted, for example, that of course press interest in the subject is important – but the Trump story, beginning with the February 1985 issue of the New York magazine in which he was fiercely attacked, has demonstrated that negative press can be just as effective as positive. In the case of David Cameron, press interest in his book has mostly related to the cost of the shepherd’s hut in which he has written – but this has offered significant advance publicity. 

Trump has also demonstrated how publishers benefit when the subject of the book is actively competitive about driving book sales. For example, a copy of his Crippled America: How to make America great again was inserted in the goody bags for the 2016 Republican National Convention, but the 3,500 copies were bought through Barnes & Noble (and hence contributed to the bestseller charts) rather than direct from the publisher. A further lesson from Trump has been that controversy is really important in effective political publishing. Forget the traditional mantra about only commissioning biographies from those who win their subjects’ approval. The president’s repeated rubbishing of books about him has actively contributed to their sale.

As we worked through lessons from Trump and considered other issues involved in effective political publishing we attempted to structure them into a process. We came up with an equation - The BS Formula (we liked the happy coincidence of our initials). 

Before presentation however, we must offer a disclaimer and some caveats. This is presented very much tongue-in-cheek. We are not offering a magic guide to predicting sales, and we are very aware that none of the variables we suggest are directly measurable. Our modest aim is to offer a platform for discussion, and perhaps a basis for weighing up different options and identifying risks.

The BS Formula for comparing options in the field of political biography and autobiography

We begin by breaking our formula down into three parts, to be subsequently reassembled. 

1. Proxy for current potential market size

There are essentially three groups who would consider reading/buying a biography on a particular person (the subject); those positively attracted to that subject (we will refer to the number of these as F - the “for” group), those against (A), and those neutral (N) but will consider reading the book, either as they are buying for others (e.g. librarians) or because they are studying the subject (e.g. students, academics or journalists). Each of these groups will have a likelihood to actually buy the book, which we will denote as Lf, La and Ln respectively. These likelihoods will probably be different; we would expect greater uptake by those attracted than against, while the likelihood of the neutral group to buy will be influenced by the size of both the for and against groups.  To make things easier when considering the values to assign to each likelihood we will express it as a percentage (e.g. 5%) but then compensate for this by dividing by 100 in the formula.

Our proxy for potential market size is thus: (F*Lf )+(A*La )+(N*Ln )/100

i.e. it is sum of the size of each of the three groups multiplied (shown by an asterisk *) by the likelihood of each group actually purchasing the book.  A full list of the variables is shown at the bottom of the article.

2. Modifying factors 

There will be also be a number of modifying factors likely to impact on a book’s success. Five are considered, each scored on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high). The first factor (P) relates to how likely the subject is to promote the books. Second is a Goldilocks factor (G); the need to get the subject at just the right stage in their career; not too young/new, not too passé.  Third is the long tail (T); how likely is the subject's appeal likely to last in future.  Fourth is the subject’s consistency to their values (C); if the subject is outrageous from the outset then ongoing attention-grabbing behaviour will be expected, but if their core values are more virtuous/domestic/conventional then deviation could compromise saleability. Lastly we consider enjoyability (E); the extent to which the book is a good read – and likely to be recommended.

Since we have suggested that each of these five factors is scored out of 10 (as this allows for easy discussion) we need at the end to divide our score by 100,000 (as this is 10*10*10*10*10)

Modifying factors = (P*G*T*C*E)/100,000

3. Dilution effect

Lastly we need to include a measure for dilution which considers both the number of books already in the space (D) and the extent (scoring from 1 to 10) to which the target audience may be addicts/repeat purchasers (R) of books on the subject; the Queen, for example, may score highly on R as there are people who buy every book about her. Since the scoring of R is out of 10 we need to include a division by 10 and we have recommended taking the square root of the number of books already published to dampen its effect (√D). 

Dilution effect = R/(10*√D)

The BS Score

The final calculation involves multiplying the three components together.  It can be written either as a calculation of the factors outlined above: 

BS Score = Proxy for market size*Modifying factors*Dilution effect

or in its full glory as shown at the bottom of the article. Our suggestion would be to use a spreadsheet which explicitly calculates each of three components as this will help in the associated discussions. 

Bear in mind when interpreting results that the actual score is not important as each person/group may calibrate differently. Rather the scores need to be interpreted relative to other scores you have produced. You could thus take a biography of Trump as a benchmark and score him relative to your potential benchmark, (Mrs May, maybe?), or you could consider several of your options alongside each other.  The most important thing is to generate discussion and consider all the factors.   

BS Score =  ((F*Lf )+(A*La )+(N*Ln ))*(P*G*T*C*E)*R/(100,000,000*√D)

F,A,N  = For, Against, Neutral: the number of people in each group who might be interested in a biography
Lf,La,Ln = Likelihood (as a %) of the number in each group actually buying the book
P = Push factor: how likely is the subject to actively promote the books 
G = Goldilocks factor: not too young/new/passé
T  = Tail: will the subject's appeal likely last?
C = Consistency factor: how likely subject is to remain true to their brand values 
E = Enjoyability: the extent to which the book is a good read
R = Repeat buying/addiction factors: factor denoting extent to which people will buy multiple books on the subject 
D = Dilution factor (number of books on subject already/about to be published)

So should an autobiography of Mrs May be commissioned?

That’s up to you. The BS Formula is a process – a framework for thoughtful discussion of key issues at a commissioning meeting – not an instant outcome. Assessment of the issues involved, and the figures in the formula, will be subjective, so they can only be compared to others produced by the same individual or group. One possibility could be for individuals to score a variety of potential subjects in advance and then to compare and discuss their scorings and rationale at the meeting in order to reach a team view. As for whether Mrs May should actually be offered a contract, as with so much publishing activity, that’s a collective decision. We hope we have provided food for thought for the debate.

Alison Baverstock is associate professor of Publishing at Kingston University and Jackie Steinitz is a data analyst.