Within a week after it's release, Britney Spears‘ long-awaited memoir The Woman in Me had sold more than 1-million copies and was headed for a fourth printing. The autobiography details her fight for freedom and tumultuous relationships with the men in her life.
While sales have not been as explosive, the revelations from Worthy by Jada Pinkett Smith catapulted her to the top of the news cycle as the actress toured the talk show circuit.
Memoirs from famous faces have been around for years. However, the last decade has seen an explosion of celebrities writing books. Everyone from Hollywood A-listers to obscure stars of popular shows or movies from 10-20 years ago are releasing their own tell-all books.
What’s behind this heightened interest in publishing these autobiographies? Why are these people — who typically value their privacy — agreeing to air their dirty laundry to the world?
The answer is obvious: people get paid a lot of money to write tell-alls. To date, the five biggest deals for individual books in history have all been memoirs. Among those five, four were released within the last 10 years: Amy Schumer’s The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo (2016, $9 million), Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (2016, $10 million), Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices (2014, $14 million), and Spears’ autobiography (2023, $15 million).
In-demand public figures could command even more astronomical numbers. The Obamas’ scored a $65 million multi-book deal, which included Michelle’s Becoming and Barack’s Promised Land. Prince Harry’s deal for Spare was rumored to net him $20 million – a worthy gamble, given the millions of copies that shot off bookstore shelves.
Unlike other prose like novels or self-discovery/improvement books, memoirs don’t need to be Pulitzer-worthy or offer any specific knowledge to sell copies. They only require a well-curated recounting of said celebrity’s life stories, and they’re even better if they include never-before-known facts. These celebrities don’t even need to know how to write, since many hire freelance ghostwriters.
Behind the Scenes
For celebrities who have been out of the limelight for a while, a book can be a way to boost their fame and remind the public of their stardom. Tom Felton of Harry Potter fame's book, aptly titled Beyond the Wand: The Magic and Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard, brought him back into the limelight. The late Matthew Perry, best known for playing Chandler Bing on the hit sitcom Friends, published Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing in 2022.
For some celebrities, a memoir can also be a vehicle to combat the stories circulating about them. The celebrity gossip machine can be unforgivingly harsh in the name of clicks, so that even a public statement might not suffice. Books serve as outlets for the celebrities to voice their truths in great detail while also earning profits.
The pattern of a book release is more or less the same, regardless of who’s releasing it. In the weeks leading up to the publication date, snippets of the book are released to the media to drum up interest. These are often salacious details that entice people to buy the book to read more. These celebrities then usually go on an extended tour to promote the book. They address the controversial bits, but tease only enough so people buy the books.
Controversies are often at the crux of memoirs release. The release of Prince Harry’s autobiography was preceded by an allegation of a physical altercation between him and Prince William concerning Meghan Markle. Another remark Harry made about Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles’ wedding in 2006 reignited a decades-old scandal concerning the now King, Camilla, and Harry’s mother, the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
In 2017, Caitlyn Jenner’s The Secrets of My Life divulged disparaging details about the Kardashians, with whom she had starred on a popular reality show. Both books resulted in public feuds with the subjects of their books: Harry with the British Royal Family, and Jenner with her former wife and stepdaughters.
Indeed, when celebrities reveal their inner lives, it can improve their reputations or backfire.
Jennette McCurdy, best known for her Nickelodeon teen show iCarly, released her scandalously-titled memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died in 2022. The book garnered attention thanks to her brutally honest accounts of her relationship with her deceased mother. In it, McCurdy detailed the lengths her mother went to coercing her into child stardom and its effect on her upbringing. Her harrowing story resonated with the public, sending the book straight to the New York Times Best Seller List.
How Memoirs Can Affect Public Opinion
Britney Spears’ book generated substantial buzz thanks to an excerpt revealing the pop diva had an abortion in the early 2000s. The baby’s father was her ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake. The timing of the release was ironically strategic: Timberlake is staging a comeback with his early aughts boy band N*Sync. The perceived public opinions worked in Spears’ favor and drummed up interest in the book.
The opposite happened for Jada Pinkett Smith, who was caught in a backlash after comments about her unconventional marriage to Will Smith became public. It was perceived as a betrayal of the couple’s public persona, and the controversy swiftly turned opinions against her.
Likewise, Matthew Perry’s book was initially criticized for including a passage that read: “Why is it that the original thinkers like River Phoenix and Heath Ledger die, but Keanu Reeves still walks among us?” It backfired completely, given Reeves’ squeaky-clean reputation. Perry had to apologize and remove that part of the book for future editions.
Controversies are often expected, desired even, for the sole reason they sell books. Spare sold 1.43 million copies in its first day, becoming the fastest-selling non-fiction book in history. Even McCurdy, a former teen idol who retired in 2017, sold over 2 million copies of her memoir worldwide.
The Popularity of Celebrity Memoirs
Memoirs are at the intersection between entertainment and authenticity. They reveal both the sordid details behind glamorous celebrity life and the universal experiences of being human. In fact, it is perhaps the current generation’s penchant for authenticity that drives this boom in the memoir business. More than ever, people gravitate toward relatable imperfection rather than cookie-cutter images, especially from celebrities. With even more memoirs in the works – Barbra Streisand and RuPaul’s books are due out next year – it looks like this trend will last for a long time.