Musicians' Tell-Alls Give Book Publishers Something to Talk About

Keith Richards
Keith Richards

At a time when most of the attention in publishing is focused on e-books -- whose explosive growth still accounts for only single-digit overall market share -- book publishers are always looking for good news.

No wonder that publishers have been eager to sign up what they view as known commodities -- i.e. famous people -- to book deals. And if you're a musician ready and willing to reveal a great deal about yourself, the chances are very good those deals will pay off handsomely.

Tell-alls about musicians are nothing new, from former groupie Pamela des Barres's I'm With the Band to the salacious (and often mendacious) biographies of John Lennon and Elvis Presley by the late Albert Goldman. but as The Wrap pointed out, the glut of musicians turning the mirror onto themselves -- with a little help from a ghostwriter's polish -- is a relatively recent phenomenon, due in large part to the success of Motley Crue's The Dirt, published in 2001.

"I think it worked because it appealed to people who weren't even Motley Crue fans," said Neil Strauss, who helped write The Dirt and knows more than a thing or two about ghostwriting rock memoirs, to The Wrap. The book sold more than 233,000 copies in hardcover and several hundred thousand more in paperback.

Even a National Book Award Nominee

Since then, other successful musician memoirs sprang forth from the likes of Bob Dylan, Grandmaster Flash, Slash, Eric Clapton and 50 Cent. This year alone, musicians like Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield and Rosanne Cash have had their say in book form, with varying degrees of commercial success. And Patti Smith moved a step further with Just Kids, her 2009 memoir of her early years in New York's punk scene and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe: The book was nominated for the National Book Award in nonfiction (the winners will be announced on Nov. 17).

With the holidays just around the corner, the book world is betting big on two musician memoirs in particular: Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards' (pictured) autobiographyLife, published on Oct. 26 by Little Brown, and Jay-Z's Decoded, a hybrid mix of memoir and lyrics out from Spiegel & Grau on Nov. 16. The latter comes with a splashy, outside-of-the-box marketing plan with Clear Channel and Bing as partners. The former arrives with a rave review from New York Times lead book critic Michiko Kakutani, who dubbed it "electrifying" and "an eye-opening all-nighter in the studio with a master craftsman disclosing the alchemical secrets of his art."

Two other veteran British rockers, however, are traveling a more expensive publishing route this fall. According to the Telegraph, Former Sex Pistols lead singer John Lydon will publish just 750 copies of Mr. Rotten's Scrapbook, a coffee-table book with hundreds of previously unreleased photos, "for the fans." More like for the well-heeled fans, who are being asked to pay £379 (nearly $600) if they pre-order the book, and as much as £449 (just over $700) at its full retail price from Dec. 1 onwards.

And as for Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, the Toronto Sun reported that his own limited-edition photo biography -- bound in leather, wrapped in silk -- has sold out of 2,500 copies prior to its official release, despite carrying a price tag of $740.

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So why are musician memoirs so popular? The opportunity to live vicariously through musicians' lives, which tend to unfold on a more outsize plane than regular folks', for one. For another, the chance, however slim, to find out new details -- the more gossip-laden, the better -- about favorite rock and pop stars. Generally, memoirs are a way for musicians looking to stoke a deeper connection with their fans, now that owning albums has given way in large part to piecemeal music downloads and video viewings on YouTube.

That's also why the parade of musicians looking to tell all in book form won't end anytime soon. After all, both David Bowie's and Billy Idol's books racked up big domestic and foreign rights deals during the Frankfurt Book Fair. Others with memoirs due out in the next year or two include country star Shania Twain and rock 'n' roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis. This may seem like a crowded bandwagon, but evidently there's still plenty of room for other talkative musicians to climb aboard.