How do musicians' memoirs really fare in a crowded market? As much as we might clamor to learn about the lurid details, the stories behind the songs, or the tragic or comic moments of the lives of our favorite artists, annual sales of their books tell a slightly different story.
Earlier this week, Publishers Weekly reflected on the upcoming Bruce Springsteen memoir, Born to Run, which sold for a reported $10 million. At that rate, the publisher will need to sell roughly five million copies to make back its advance. Very few books of any kind ever do that, though there are, of course, exceptions.
How about some numbers of recent music memoirs from Nielsen’s Book Scan? Keith Richards’ Life (Little, Brown) sold around 554,000 copies in its first year. Neil Young’s first memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, sold about 143,000. Given that the first printings for each were in the 100,000-copy range, those two were best sellers. Patti Smith’s Just Kids (Ecco) brings up the bottom of the list, though, with close to 58,000 copies.
Of more recent memoirs, Willie Nelson’s It’s a Long Story (Little, Brown), which came out last May, leads the pack with close to 106,000 copies sold, followed by Carly Simon’s Boys in the Trees (Flatiron), released in November, with 75,000 copies sold. Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink (Penguin/Blue Rider), a critical darling, has started out of the gate slowly with about 40,000 copies. More interesting is that Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (Dey Street), which has been out for over a year and is already in paperback, has sold only about 29,500 copies. Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless (Doubleday), published in September, has sold about 22,000.
What do these numbers really tell us? They certainly haven’t slowed publishers from signing up memoirs by musicians and from confidently planning large first print runs, with Springsteen being only the most recent example. Alanis Morissette’s Perpetual Becoming (Morrow/Dey Street), is out this month with an announced 200,000-copy printing. Bobby Brown’s My Prerogative (Morrow/Dey Street) hits in June with a 250,000-copy printing. And, while it’s a biography, Philip Norman’s Paul McCartney: A Life (Little, Brown), out in May, has announced 150,000-copy printing.
In the end, though, the numbers tell us very little, and very often tell the publishers very little. Or rather, they send messages to which publishers are often not willing to listen. A good review does not necessarily have any direct correlation with numbers sold. An award for a book might give its sales a slight bump, but sales even out again three to four weeks following the announcement of any award. Do these numbers indicate that some authors have been out on the road – both figuratively and literally – selling their books with well-placed interviews and bookstore appearances? There is some correlation here, and in-person appearances do drive sales to some extent. Advertising doesn’t sell books these days, if it ever really did; but it does satisfy authors.
Most trade publishers – while they might say otherwise behind closed doors – have clearly not been dissuaded by the uneven sales performance of music memoirs and biographies. For the foreseeable future, and much to readers’ delight – and sometimes chagrin (“Not another memoir by someone in a high-profile band! Do we need to hear another story like that other one we just read?”) – stories about musicians’ lives, told firsthand, however graceful or graceless, will roll over us like the waters.