In the late 1990s, Jeremy Trevathan and his colleagues at Pan Macmillan dreamt up an ingenious way to secure the “Holy Grail of publishing”: an Elton John autobiography. The team put together an offer letter and stashed it inside a music box, complete with a little ballerina that twirled to the sound of his hit song Tiny Dancer. They sent it off to the singer’s management... but never heard back.
Two decades on, Trevathan, publisher, finally got his hands on the book, and was able to ask John if he had ever seen that music box. “Oh no,” was the reply. “I was probably off my tits.”
Trevathan explained: “Lots and lots of publishers tried to get Elton but the time just probably wasn’t right for him before. I think what’s happened now is that he’s come to the end of his public touring and it’s a moment for him to take stock.”
The autobiography, Me, is released globally by Pan Macmillan on 15th October, including sister company Henry Holt in the US, and will be backed by one of the biggest trade marketing campaigns the publisher has ever mounted. Crucially, Trevathan said the book has been worth such a long wait. He said: “When you read it, it’s a bit like you’re sitting down and having a drink with Elton and he’s just rabbiting on, telling you anecdote after anecdote, and laughing at himself a lot. He really comes off the page. It’s one of the best celebrity memoirs I’ve ever read.”
To get it, Pan Mac had to go through an eight-publisher auction run by Andrew Wylie, which saw the candidates whittled down to a final two. From there, the team flew out to John and husband David Furnish’s luxury penthouse apartment in Atlanta to meet the star himself and try to win his signature.
A “terribly nervous” Trevathan prepared by watching the infamous “Tantrums and Tiaras” documentary on the plane, while m.d. Anthony Forbes Watson ploughed through three biographies of the star.
Pan Macmillan's Jeremy Trevathan and Sara Lloyd
Joined by Wylie, Furnish and colleagues from Holt in an apartment with views across Atlanta, Elton arrived in pink glasses and a trademark tracksuit. Trevathan recalled: “He came round and shook hands with us all and he did this nerve-racking thing, which I imagine all celebrities do. He put his mobile phone down and said: ‘Guys, before we start I’m expecting a really important phone call in the next 15 minutes or so and I might have to go off if it comes in.’ I sat there thinking, ‘Oh shit, if it's not going well he’ll give a signal to someone and go.’ The phone did ring, but John refused to answer it and Pan Mac eventually scooped the book.
A year later, John paid the Pan Mac offices in London a visit. Digital and communications director Sara Lloyd packed the reception and boardroom with his favourite flowers (huge yellow roses) while the man himself, who had been expected to make a “discreet” visit, turned up in a bright pink Rolls Royce with a security guard so handsome he left some of his hosts “in shock”.
Lloyd said: “What I found amazing was that [John] was so engaged with the book world and so into books and reading, and how much they like reading to their sons. They were asking us loads of questions about the business and e-books. Then we started to really get the sense from David about the story that was going to build up to publication, with all the things they were planning, with the film and other stuff that we hadn’t known.”
Those plans included hit movie musical “Rocketman” and John’s farewell public tour. Pan Mac decided from the outset to create a global campaign for this global superstar, with a single publication date, cover and creative worldwide, for all advertising in all territories. With the scale of the work involved becoming clear, the firm brought in ex-colleague Geoff Duffield’s new brand agency to project-manage. Lloyd joked that they had probably seen more of their Holt colleagues while working on this book than throughout their history of publishing together, while there have also been monthly meeting with Furnish and his company Rocket.
“Of course, David was a senior marketing executive before he got together with Elton,” Trevathan said. “So we walk into this meeting and almost immediately it’s evident that David knew exactly the stuff we were after, he had lots of ideas of his own. One of the great things we didn’t realise we were signing up was someone who had a partner and a manager who was massively professional about what we have to do and how we have to work.”
But both Lloyd and Trevathan agree the key to the project was art director James Annal’s cover design, which the whole team loved the moment they saw it, and which will be used worldwide. The rainbow colours across John’s glasses have fed into all the publicity material, from point of sale to bus adverts. “It was the inspiration for the whole campaign,” Lloyd said. “Literally everything is themed in that way. It just inspired us. It gave us the clue to it all, really.”
The campaign for the book has been planned for two years, with a team of 15 working on it in the UK alone. John will visit in November for a conversation with a soon-to-be-revealed host at Hammersmith Apollo, plus there will be a huge book signing at Waterstones Piccadilly. Pan Mac is also promising a number of surprises and “publishing firsts” with global and local partners, including adverts at John’s beloved Watford FC and a “top-secret” event.
Covering all bases
Serialisation kicked off in the Mail at the weekend, generating reams of headlines and social media reaction. Bridging the newspaper spectrum, there will be a front cover exclusive Guardian Weekend feature too. The BBC has also announced a prime-time, hour-long interview by Graham Norton, the first time John has agreed to such a show.
Seasonal advertising is also on the way, along with a partnership with John’s hometown of Pinner and a dizzying number of promotional materials, including 1,000 free-standing display units, 6,000 tote bags and 7,500 bookmarks. Most importantly, one million copies of the book will be distributed globally for launch day.
With so much hype, time and money spent on the autobiography, there is a lot riding on it. But Lloyd said: “I want it to work because it deserves to, because it’s really bloody good. I think I’m more personally invested in this book than I’ve ever been invested in a project before, because [Jeremy and I] both really love it. We love him, we love the book and we both think it’s phenomenally good.”
Me: Elton John will be published by Pan Macmillan on 15th October in hardback (9781509853311, £25), e-book and audio format (narrated by John and actor Taron Egerton). Read Pan Macmillan art director James Annal's blog about designing the cover for the book here.