For our Contemporary Issues in Publishing module we are treated to a talk from an industry professional every Monday night and I must say, we’re completely spoilt. The standard of lectures and the insight we’re given into this evolving profession is invaluable. Last Monday was no different, as we listened to the tales of the bard, John Blake, publishing guru.
We had spent the afternoon considering who would win the battle of biography versus autobiography – not an easy decision. It’s clear that stories from the horse’s mouth hold more appeal. If you’re a fan, you’re going to lap up everything the writer (ghost or otherwise) has to say, but isn’t a biography going to provide a more balanced view? We had to agree, the success of a celebrity book has a lot to do with timing. If the subject is in the public eye already and has followers who want to learn more about them, there’s room for biographies to sell well if the buyer isn’t provided with many alternatives.
During his Masterclass, John Blake shared a few stories with us of his path from journalist to the most famous publisher of celebrity autobiographies in the UK today. He started out by achieving great success with the autobiography of Lenny ‘The Guv’nor’ McLean, aka. The Hardest Man In Britain – he was a bareknuckle fighter, bouncer, actor and everything else you could possibly associate with such a nickname, yet Blake didn’t really know who he was. Several weeks prior to the release of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, in which McLean starred, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and wanted to release his memoirs while he still had a chance. Blake took him on and was astounded at the attention the book received. He remarked that he knew the book was going to be a success when a number of copies were stolen from a book fair, so eager were his fans to get hold of a copy. The book shot to number one in the charts on its release, and poignantly, McLean passed away the next day.
This startling triumph lead to a series of ‘hard-man’ books that kept McLean’s autobiography in hardback for four whole years. It was clear to Blake that there was an untapped market in the shape of people who wanted to read about those they could relate to, somebody who could give them the inside scoop; an eyewitness account of daily celebrity. Blake published the autobiographies of David Jason and a relatively unknown Piers Morgan. He concentrates on mass-market, high profile non-fiction.
Since then, however, celebrity books have gone on to receive a sorry reputation. They’re said to be trashy with weak content, published to satisfy demand. With so many under-25s selling their story, do the critics have a point? In recent years Blake has become known for commissioning the books of Katie Price, aka. Jordan, whose “autobiography”, Being Jordan outsold Ian McEwan’s Atonement by 10:1.
Blake would rather we asked, ‘who has the right to say that the lives of the working class shouldn’t be recorded?’ He thinks that if Dickens were around today he’d rather read about someone like Crissy Rock than a member of the middle classes. In fact, it’s likely that Dickens’ contemporaries turned their noses up at the prostitutes and inhabitants of workhouses in his novels. Is the present echoing the past? Can’t we accept that it’s in our nature to be curious, that so many people are fascinated by the hardships and successes of others?
John Blake explained that celebrity books are engaging people who may not otherwise read. Testing the water can build confidence leaving readers feeling more encouraged to buy another book. Where’s the harm in that?
The Masterclass was full of precious portions of information. One of which really got me thinking. It’s becoming apparent that people don’t want to read bitchy gossip any more, that heart-warming tales of love and success are big sellers in todays ‘era of austerity’. Malcolm Welshman’s Pets in a Pickle, memoirs of a country vet, has sold more than David Nicholls’ One Day. I had no idea this was the case. Not only do I quite badly want to read about Welshman’s escapades, but it reminded me of the recent trend towards anti-bullying in todays press. The American celebrity blog run by Perez Hilton has taken action, it no longer wants to be cruel to those it posts about. The Leveson enquiry is bringing the celeb bashing tabloid newspapers and magazines to its knees. Has our decision to try and see the friendlier side of life lead to all of these changes, or have we finally, simultaneously, realised the error of our nosy ways?
Whatever seems to be going on, this Masterclass raised a whole list of issues that have been simmering below the surface in my head. I suppose it boils down to ‘How interested should we be?’ and whatever the answer, ‘Is that a bad thing?’
What do you think?
…I’ll leave these thoughts with you for now. It’s midnight, my eyes are tired and I can no longer see the screen. Fare thee well.