Sainsbury's' Selby warns publishers to heed waning appeal of celeb memoirs

Sainsbury's' Selby warns publishers to heed waning appeal of celeb memoirs

Sainsbury’s head of books and music Pete Selby has said the market this year for celebrity autobiographies has been “particularly challenging”, and warned that the industry is not adjusting to waning demand. But while publishers agree that the market is tougher for celebrity autobiographies now, they argue there are still opportunities for good books to do well, particularly if there is a "correction in the market" on advances.

According to Nielsen BookScan, sales of the genre this year up to 5th November were down 17% in value and 20% in volume from the same period last year to a value of £8.1m.

While the two top-selling autobiographies for 2016 - Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run (Simon & Schuster, 183,706 copies sold thus far via Nielsen BookScan) and Phil Collins' Not Dead Yet (Century, 73,611) - have outsold the 2015 top sellers: The Amazing Book is Not on Fire by Dan and Phil (Ebury, 115,036) and Paul O'Grady's Open the Cage, Murphy (Bantam, 67,421), the books below those in the bestseller charts show lower sales than 2015.

The third, fourth and fifth bestsellers thus far - Little Mix's Our World (Penguin) with 48,263 copies sold, Johnny Marr's Set the Boy Free (Century) at 34,170, and Chris Packham's Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (Ebury) at 28,913 have undersold 2015's third, fourth and fifth titles: Life with a Sprinkle of Glitter by Louise Pentland (S&S, 61,598), Over the Top and Back by Tom Jones (Penguin, 59,483) and Charlotte Crosby's Me Me Me (Headline, 57,291).

Selby told The Bookseller: “In many cases, the advances paid to the talent will never possibly be justified in terms of over the counter sales/space. And yet despite clear evidence that customers are choosing to disengage from this market, a lot of good money is clearly still being thrown after bad.”

“Alongside trying to chase early Christmas Gifting sales in September, the industry is in danger of artificially deflating the market by pointing customers towards this product when they are clearly not in the same place.” He added: “Based purely on the shopping habits our customers are demonstrating, we will take a different approach to how we cut our cloth in 2017.”

Nic Bottomley, owner of Mrs B's Emporium in Bath, agreed that the market has “gradually been dwindling away”, whilst Daunt Books is getting fewer requests for celebrity titles. Manager Brett Wolstencroft said: “We don’t stock lots of autobiographies but we will order them when customers request them. However, we’re not being asked for those books as often, there is a sense people are moving slightly away [from that market].”

Bucking the trend in all retailers is Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run (Simon & Schuster), which is selling well at supermarkets as well as independent bookshops. As Peter Donaldson, founder of Red Lion Books, said: “Bruce Springsteen is the exception this year because Born to Run is a real autobiography written by a giant of rock who knows how to write and gives insight into his life and creativity. It is not a 'cut and paste' career scrapbook which so many ghost-written memoirs turn out to be.”

But publishers still see a degree of potential in the market. HarperCollins is “very much in the market for quality autobiographies”, according to senior communications manager James Lewis, although he added: “We will only acquire the right book, by the right person at the right price.”

Ben Dunn, m.d. of Blink Publishing, said a celebrity’s big name will no longer guarantee said: “Timing is key, as is the package and cover design, and the celebrity’s social media following. Also it’s very important that the content is right - the book has to be well written.” Dunn also argued that the amount offered to celebrities shouldn’t always be huge. “There are still big celebrity deals left to be done and publishers will still invest in those names. However, I would like to see a certain amount of correction in the market. For the people who are not the big, big names the offers need to be at the right level. I would like to see them make their money from royalties. A book can be killed by big advances so I hope there can be some more realistic conversations.”

Selby said there is still a retail market for “more considered” books if publishers stick to four basic rules: “Have an interesting story with a few miles on the clock; have a proper UK fan base; avoid social media – the public want intrigue and insight from the book; speak to the media and be up for promotion.”

“It all sounds like common sense but so often these factors are seemingly ignored. If you apply this test, it’s easy to see why Springsteen for example has been such a success and why so many others have failed.”

According to Nielsen BookScan, the five biggest celebrity autobiographies of the past five years are: Miranda Hart's Is it just Me? (Hodder) with 420,313 copies sold; David Jason: My Life (Arrow, 406,400 copies); Lynda Bellingham's There's Something I've been Dying to Tell You (Coronet, 354,051 copies): Cheryl: My Story (Harper, 285,136 copies); and Rod Stewart's Rod (Arrow, 271,092 copies).