It's the category where Puliters and NBAs meet six-figure sales, scholarly research yields page-turners and even the Founding Fathers become hot. Biography is one of the most enduring genres for publishers and booksellers alike—and one of the most surprising. Predicting which biography will break out of the pack is notoriously difficult—who'd have thought, for example, that the story of an unknown 18th-century British noblewoman would race out of the stores. But in 1998, Amanda Foreman's Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire racked up an impressive net sales total of more than 150,000 copies in its Random House hardcover and Modern Library paperback editions. (Not surprisingly, Random House publicity director Tom Perry tells PW, "That's become something of a model here—we're constantly on the lookout for the next Georgiana.")
"You're always surprised," says Ballantine executive editor Elisabeth Dyssegaard. "You think everything's been done, but then something comes across your desk and there's something new or someone forgotten. The Georgiana book is one of the great biography successes in recent years. No one had heard of the Duchess of Devonshire. But now they have. We have to remind ourselves that she wasn't so famous before the book."
But the surprise breakout is only one kind of success story: now the genre seems to be cresting a wave of popularity led by political biographies both current and historical. Current national bestsellers include Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Press; four weeks on PW's charts) and Cokie Roberts's Founding Mothers (Morrow; six weeks), along with three works on Jackie Kennedy in the past two years (most recently, Edward Klein's Farewell, Jackie, out last month from Viking). From the famous to the little known, if there's something new to say or a new way to say it, the life will be written.
This is not to imply that the genre is an easy one. "It's harder than ever to get sales on straightforward biographies," says Holt editor-in-chief Jennifer Barth. "It's not enough that a writer has great psychological insight. We get asked, 'Is there new material?' You need an icon or a big figure, an expert in the time period, or someone granted never-before-seen access. You have to feel there's something new, or a new context. You can't just have someone who loves Maugham; there has to be something to distinguish it."
Though many popular figures are written about with surprising regularity, at the editorial end the field is still perceived as fresh and rewarding. Despite surprises, by all accounts what works best—or certainly most easily—in the marketplace are well-known biographers writing about well-known subjects. Gary Wills on Thomas Jefferson. A. Scott Berg on Katharine Hepburn. Gordon S. Wood on Benjamin Franklin (The Americanization of Bejamin Franklin, just out from Penguin Press). David McCullough on Truman or John Adams. (And speaking of surprises, who could have predicted that Simon & Schuster's John Adams would become a national bestseller, enjoying a 65-week run on PW's lists?)
Editor Ann Godoff signed Chernow's Hamilton work while at Random House and brought it to Penguin Press when she started her imprint there. "The book was eagerly awaited both by bookstores and the media," says associate publisher Tracy Locke. "The first printing was 300,000 and that basically answered demand." A second printing has since brought the number of copies in print to more than 350,000. "It's hard to compare this book to any other because it was so highly anticipated," Locke says. "The last five years there's been a Founding Father craze. It's hard to guess why these things happen. Books like Chernow's and Wood's have become so accessible and entertaining."
The Founding Fathers may have their groupies, but how do you convince significant numbers of readers that less documented lives are worth reading about? "A pitfall of the genre is overestimating the public's fascination with one's own passionate interest," says Carroll & Graf editor-in-chief Philip Turner, whose forthcoming list includes John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal by Dary Matera (May), a revisionist history based on a newly unearthed cache of Dillinger papers, and In Our Hearts We Were Giants: The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe—A Dwarf Family's Survival of the Holocaust by Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev (June). "It's important to keep yourself reined in and remember that every title is sold one book at a time and represents a choice on the part of the consumer. This applies to most genres but to biographies especially. The reader is bringing another person's life into their own and they may not like having them there."
Biographers themselves fall prey to this problem, Turner says. "They grow weary of their subjects. A biographer once confessed to me that the Algonquin writers were not all that much fun or all that witty after three years of research about them. You buy a novel, it offers an escape. That's not necessarily true with someone else's life."
The current vogue for looking at just a portion of a subject's life rather than a definitive examination gives readers a chance to step in—and then step back. "Using part of a life as a lens yields a more lively read and a shorter one," says Holt's Barth. "It's a way to learn without feeling as if you're in a classroom."
Ballantine's Dyssegaard sees biographers becoming more creative in finding ways to tell their stories. "They focus on one period, the most productive years, a time of crisis, whatever. There is a move away from more traditional portraits. Looking at women's lives, for example—we see the world very differently now than we did 25 or 30 years ago. Our perspective on the possibilities and who a woman can be is very different. This is also true of African-Americans, or any group within society about whom prejudices and assumptions have changed. It's an exciting time for biography in general."
" 'Buddy books' have become quite popular," says Random House executive publicity director Carol Schneider. "I'm seeing that a lot within our own group." She cites Daniel Mark Epstein's Lincoln and Whiteman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington (Ballantine, Jan. 2004); Mark Perry's Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America (Random House, May); and Shostakovich and Stalin by Solomon Volkov (Knopf, Mar.). Schneider notes, "Maybe the precursor is The Metaphysical Club [FSG, 2002], where mini-biographies emerge from a look at a group. Certainly our recent title by Rachel Cohen, A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967, is the most comprehensive expression of this trend."
New Content, New Angles, New Niches
As Barth succinctly puts it, "Presley, Monroe, Kennedy—if you slice it right there's always more to say." Indeed, who would have thought that more could be said about George Washington (Joseph Ellis's His Excellency: George Washington, Knopf, Oct., which follows the Father of Our Country from his military career through his years as president); Lincoln (C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, Free Press, Oct., which presents a new interpretation of the intimate life of the revered president); or Mark Twain (Karen Lystra's Dangerous Intimacy, University of California Press, May, which promises breakthrough scholarship from new information about the last decade of the writer's life)?
How many books have been written about Shakespeare's life? The answer isn't important; there's always room for more. Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton, Sept.) approaches its subject as though there weren't already a wealth of books on the Bard. As publicity director Louise Brockett explains, the author addresses the question of how a young man from the provinces, without wealth, connections or university education, became the greatest playwright not only of his age of all time. "It's a brilliant reading," she says, "of Shakespeare's world that yields a new understanding of the man and his genius."
And in the department of new and unusual angles, consider Ballantine's September biography of Florence Nightingale (Nightingales: The Story of Florence Nightingale and Her Remarkable Family), in which Gillian Gill compresses the last 50 years of Nightingale's life into one chapter in order to focus the majority of the book on family influences going back as far as her grandparents' generation. This title illustrates an aspect of the biography genre that publishers—and readers—find especially appealing: the prospect of discovering an intriguing, often arcane fact about a subject's life. Florence Nightingale, at the height of her fame (she was 38), returned home to England and retired to her bedroom, where she stayed for some 30 years, allowing visitors—including her family—only by appointment.
Stephan Wilkinson's The Gold-Plated Porsche: How I Sank a Small Fortune into a Used Car, and Other Misadventures (Lyons Press, June), by a journalist who discovered himself through the painstaking restoration of a Porsche 911SC, started as a shop manual but grew to include alternating memoir chapters about the author's privileged childhood. "It was risky to tell a life story this way, but it's getting fantastic reviews," says editor Tom McCarthy.
Thurston Clarke's Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed the World (Holt, Oct.) is a portrait of JFK, certainly one of the most popular biographical subjects, using the narrow time frame of the week leading up to his inauguration. An oration from an earlier era occupies the whole of a current Simon & Schuster release, Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President by Harold Holzer.
New ways of telling subjects' stories have also led to new publishing niches. At Houghton Mifflin, adult trade publisher Janet Silver says they've made a deliberate move to publish group portraits about a period in time or a circle of influential friends. "Books like Amanda Vaill's Everybody Was So Young , which is as much about an era as a person or persons, work best," she says. At Pantheon, editor Anjali Singh is publishing in August a second memoir in graphic novel form by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, a sequel to her Persepolis, which went through nine printings. Singh is also publishing Epileptic by David B. (Jan.), a comics-style memoir about growing up with an epileptic brother.
Newmarket Press publisher Esther Margolis has discovered value in books on contemporary figures that people read about every day but don't in fact know much about. The house enjoyed a prescient success with Antonia Felix's Condi: The Condoleezza Rice Story (which went through seven printings following its fall 2002 publication and is still selling alongside the February Pocket Books reprint) and next month will publish Felix's Wesley K. Clark, the first book-length look at the general. "Our goal," Margolis tells PW, "is to pursue substantive contemporary biographies about people whose position or activities have an impact on our lives and who haven't been treated before."
A recent Arcade title illustrates yet another niche for this category—John Gielgud: A Life in Letters, edited by Richard Mangan, was published on April 14, the centenary of the acclaimed actor's birth. In the words of publisher Richard Seaver, "Biography comes in many forms, and in one sense letters to a plethora of friends, colleagues and lovers offer an accurate and more intimate picture than anything else could, especially since most autobiographies, written late in life, combine fact and memory, whereas letters penned hard after the event reflect the subject as he or she was at that precise moment in life."
Running Press is looking to biographies that are heavily illustrated and, when possible, multimedia. Publicist Sam Caggiula cites as an example Frank Lloyd Wright: The Interactive Portfolio by Margo Stipe (Sept.), which profiles the architect's life and work through his drawings, notes, correspondence and photographs, while a CD delivers his voice talking about various projects. (Caggiula adds, "Even David McCullough says he wishes he could hear what Adams and Jefferson and Washington sounded like, because it would help him understand these men to a greater degree.") At Carroll & Graf, publisher Will Balliett finds interest in "corners of history that haven't been paid attention to" and contemporary literary memoirs with social import such as The Passion of My Times (Sept.) by civil rights advocate William L. Taylor, who was at the heart of the civil rights fights and recounts a lifetime on the movement's front lines.
When Is a Biography Not a Biography?
Biographies, autobiographies and memoirs, though closely aligned, are seen as quite separate in publishers' minds. "All autobiography has something in common, and all biography has something in common, but there's a huge distinction between them," says Hyperion editor-in-chief Will Schwalbe. "I never consider biography and autobiography in the same breath."
Though different from one another, Schwalbe likes to publish them all: "We've had great success with really first-rate memoirs by people already well known. Anthony Kiedis's ScarTissue [Nov.], about life as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is in that tradition." What's most important for autobiographies, Schwalbe believes, is not how well known someone is but whether they have a passionate following. "So no category of famous person does better than the others. Whether it's actor Michael J. Fox or Olympic swimmer Greg Louganis, people are fascinated by both." Passionate interest is not so important for biography, he says. "Biography is a subcategory of history, so it's the skill of the biographer that matters." The lion's share of sales for all three genres is still the traditional bookstore, he says.
According to NAL editor Martha Bushko, "While the success of a biography is often determined in part by who's writing it, the popularity of an autobiography is often based in large part on the popularity of the celebrity/sports figure/political figure—and in many cases, how much dirt they dish." Dish accounts for the one-day laydown plans for Tatum O'Neal's A Paper Life: My Story (HarperEntertainment, Oct. 12), "a media event in and of itself," says assistant publicity director Kristen Green, with names named—father Ryan O'Neal and his live-in lover Farrah Fawcett; ex-husband John McEnroe. Why You Crying? My Long Hard Look at Life, Love and Laughter by George Lopez with Armen Keteyian (S&S/Touchstone Hardcover, May), is the "blade of grass growing out of the cement" autobiography of the Mexican-American comedian, who transcended the "brown barrier" to become a TV star.
The differences among these aligned genres surface when it comes to publicity. "I can say that they are equally easy—or difficult—to promote," says Da Capo publicity director Lissa Warren. "What makes a difference is who they're about—or by. If it's a household name, it's much easier than if it's someone no one has ever heard of—even if that person has a unique and well-crafted story."
Sheila Levine, assistant director at the University of California Press, thinks memoirs are more difficult to sell than biographies. "There are certainly exceptions—Hillary and Bill, for example. Ours are not by famous people, and for the most part, books on other parts of the world simply don't sell as well. To me the writing is absolutely key. Writing biography/memoir is like writing a novel, and I think the standard must be higher than for academic writing. A good subject is an interesting life written in an engaging style"
Walker bucked the publicity odds in a big way five years ago with Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. Although, as publisher George Gibson points out, this book followed Sobel's bestselling Longitude, "the perceived wisdom was that a second book wouldn't do as well." In fact, he reports, it sold "half again as many copies." In a nod to different publishing perspectives in this category, however, Gibson notes that the house "didn't want to publish it as a biography per se—this was a joint story, an opportunity to use two related lives as a way of understanding an absolutely pivotal moment in the history of mankind." (P.S.: the second Sobel title wound up with approximately 200,000 hardcover copies in print.)
Barth at Holt, noting that "every season there's room for some strange discovery," says she hopes this year's will be Jean Nathan's The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, about children's author Dare Wright. "We are pitching it sui generis," Barth explains. "No one has heard of her, but they've heard of The Lonely Doll, a 1957 children's book that really captured people's imaginations. That's the touchpoint. We will get galleys into every single media person's hands to let them discover the book for themselves." What matters when dealing with a little-known subject, Barth says, is that readers are given a reason to care, a hook that will invite them in. Perhaps a new biography of another noted children's author might appeal to a similar audience—Philip B. Kunhardt Jr.'s The Dreaming Game: A Portrait of a Passionate Life (Riverhead, Sept.), which is about his mother, Edith, the creator of Pat the Bunny.
Like all books by well-known biographers, the hook for Diana Preston and Michael Preston's A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: The Life of William Dampier: Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer (Walker, Apr.) is the writer. According to Gibson, Dampier, who went around the world three times in the 17th century and published a bestselling book about his first trip, was a celebrity. "Then in the Victorian era he fell out of favor because of his 'pirate' association. The Prestons were at the British Museum and came across a listing of his portrait. It said 'Pirate and hydrographer.' They were intrigued." Aided by timely reviews in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, plus a book tour to maritime museums and explorer clubs up and down the East Coast, the book got off the ground pretty fast, says Gibson. But, he lamented, if getting momentum is tough, "keeping momentum is the great challenge."
Scrambling for Position
The challenge just to get started can be enormous. Steerforth Press publisher Chip Fleisher thinks he has a prize winner in Michael J. Ybarra's Washington Gone Crazy (Sept.), a biography of Senator Pat McCarran (the McCarran Act is named for him), but he also acknowledges his problem. "The book is by a first-time author, and it's about a political figure who is far from a household name... and a mean bastard to boot." To counterbalance these obstacles, Fleisher took extra time and care "pre-positioning" the title. "I got advance blurbs from galleys prepared especially for this purpose, to show that the book is a serious work of history, tells an untold story in prose that's energetic and captivating." Though it's too soon to tell if Fleisher's strategy will work, the book will go out with quotes from Sam Tanenhaus (obtained before his appointment as editor of the New York Times Book Review) and Douglas Brinkley.
"We rely on endorsements from experts and other scholars. It makes a huge difference," says Silver at Houghton Mifflin. "The author's credentials matter. The imprimatur is important. Unless the person is already famous or attached to someone famous, it's very hard to get attention. We look for off-the-book-page publicity. You need not just a new interpretation but new source material. This can be critical." New source material should draw attention to Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim (Sept.), for which author Mary Dearborn's unprecedented access to the Guggenheim family, friends and papers contributes new insights into the life of, as the publisher puts it, "the ultimate self-invented woman, a cultural mover and shaker who broke away from her poor-little-rich-girl origins to become the enfant terrible of the art world."
"One thing you might mention," says Warren at Da Capo, "is that unauthorized biographies are much easier to publicize than authorized ones. The media often assumes, rightly so, that an authorized biography will be a watered-down version of the truth." Dyssegaard at Ballantine agrees: "We're more concerned with access than with authorization. Alarm bells go off if a writer lacks access."
Among the many forthcoming titles that have been invigorated by this important element are Jim Morrison: Life, Death,Legend by Stephen Davis (Gotham Books, June), who had access to newly discovered documents, journals and audiotapes to reveal new facts about the Doors singer's last days in Paris; Paul Bowles: A Life by Virginia Spencer Carr (Scribner, Nov.), a revelatory biography by a writer with personal access to Bowles, his friends and his archive; and Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward (Knopf, Oct.), about the heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, which draws on new material including Johnson's never-before-published prison memoir.
Personal connections are another surefire way of drawing attention to a title. Minnie Churchill, coauthor (with David Coombs) of Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings (Running Press, Sept.), is Churchill's granddaughter-in-law, as close a stand-in for the great man as anyone's going to get (with the exception of his granddaughter, whose anecdotal history, Chasing Churchill, is due in November in paperback from Carroll & Graf). "She is an amazing legacy to the person," says Caggiula. "People want her. I'd never go so far as to say it's easy to get attention, but with biography and a notable author, I have more access to the media."
Olivier Widmaier Picasso, Picasso's grandson and author of Picasso: Portraits of the Family (Prestel, Oct.), enjoyed a proximity that not too many people had, as did Dean Martin's daughter Deana, who has written, with Wendy Holden, Memories Are Made of This (Harmony, Oct.), about what it was like to grow up in a Hollywood home. And the Rogers family share their memories—and 50 previously unpublished photos—in The Cowboy and the Senorita: A Biography of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans by Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian (Falcon, May).
Ballantine can draw readers to Kate Lardner's book about life with her famous father, Shut Up He Explained: A Memoir of Growing Up on the Blacklist (May), by emphasizing that Kate shows the private side, whereas Ring, in his memoir I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2000), showed primarily the public.
Biographies of regional interest—and somewhat hors de combat as a result—have a life of their own and a built-in constituency. Ralph Stanley: Tales of a Maine Boatbuilder by Ralph Stanley and journalist/photographer Craig Milner (Down East Books, July) is being published because, in the words of publicist Terry Bregy, "Stanley, the boatbuilder laureate of Maine, represents the growing interest in wooden boatbuilding, which is becoming more and more popular even as the technology of alternate materials grows." Ol' Max Evans: The First Thousand Years by Slim Randles (University of New Mexico Press, Sept.), is devoted to an unconventional literary figure from the West who was also a gold smuggler, mining company executive, artist in Taos, professional calf roper, movie producer and legendary partygoer. Bradford Washburn: A Life of Exploration by Michael Sfraga (Oregon State University Press, June), is the first book to detail the life and achievements of a mountaineering legend. And from LSU Press in October—"just in time for the November elections," says publicist Barbara Outland—comes Senator Albert Gore, Sr.: Tennessee Maverick by Kyle Longley with a foreword by former vice president Al Gore.
And if fame, notoriety, revelations and/or fascinating reconfigurations aren't enough, Elizabeth Weiss, publicist at Taylor Trade Publishing, proposes tie-ins as a way of garnering extra attention for a biographical work. Bobby Darin: A Life by Michael Starr (Nov.), which has been endorsed by Darin's son, ties in to the release of the movie Beyond the Sea, which will star Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin, and Bobby Darin: The Incredible Story of an Amazing Life by Al Di Orio (Running Press, May paper), which includes a complete catalogue of his work and music.
If a movie's star power can help a book's sales, then Broadway Books could have a winner with Citizen Hughes: The Power, The Money and the Madness of the Man Portrayed in the Movie The Aviator by Michael Drosnin. In addition to the public's perennial fascination with this celebrated oddball, the movie features such luminaries as Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett and—as the great man himself—Leonardo DiCaprio. Both book and movie are due in November.
And then there are those factors beyond anyone's control. "Sometimes it's just a matter of getting lucky with your publication timing," Weiss says. "Something could happen at the end of this year to bring any one of our biography subjects into the limelight."
What might be good for selling books, however, might not necessarily be good for the subject of the book. "One of the wonderful things about biography is that everything you're writing about has happened," says Hyperion's Schwalbe. "With some exceptions I am wary of biographies of living people. As the Greeks said, 'Count no man fortunate before he dies.' Lives can take unexpected turns. It's hard to sum up before it's over. It's easier to do memoir and autobiography of living people and biographies of dead people."