Publishers find fans with critically acclaimed autobiographies
Jay-Z’s memoir “Decoded” hits bookstores this week, mere days after Keith Richards’ “Life” entered the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list at No. 1, marking the latest entry in a growing roster of recent musicmaker autobiographies. But it arrives with bigger attendant questions: Does the resurgence of such memoirs have relevance for the biz as a whole, and will hip-hop-friendly audiences take up the tome in noteworthy numbers?
Co-written with journalist and former Source editor Dream Hampton and published by Random House imprint Spiegel & Grau, the high-profile release of the rapper’s hybrid memoir and lyrical study, with a 125,000-copy first printing and a list price of $35, is betting big on the underdocumented book-buying habits of the hip-hop generation.
After a first collaboration with Hampton was scrapped in 2005, the Brooklyn rapper proposed a collection of his own lyrics, with explanatory asides and annotations. From there, “Decoded” took shape as both a lyrical self-analysis and first-person memoir, allowing for political ruminations, personal history and in-depth exegeses of his own and other rappers’ rhyme schemes and metaphors.
This sort of ambition in crafting memoirs is quickly becoming the norm.
Richards’ “Life,” co-written with James Fox for Little, Brown and Co., dominated news cycles in the publishing and music worlds in the days prior to its release, and like a number of memoirs before it, seemed to be a different breed from the mere fan-targeted cash-ins that have dotted the genre in the past. The book release was marked as a literary event, and the text itself received an unqualified rave from the New York Times’ often dour book reviewer Michiko Kakutani.
It was Bob Dylan who may have set the contempo standard for the musician memoir. His 2004 release by Simon & Schuster, “Chronicles: Volume 1,” written without a collaborator, was by turns intimate and elusive, and featured a Beat-influenced style that demanded to be read as literature. It earned a nomination for the National Books Critics Circle award and spent 19 weeks on the bestseller list.
There have been other such successes. Punk godmother Patti Smith’s 2010 Ecco release, “Just Kids,” an account of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, garnered appreciative notices from literary heavyweight Edmund White and was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award.
Publishers Weekly senior editor Mark Rotella finds this something of a recent phenomenon.
“That Roseanne Cash (whose “Composed: A Memoir” was released in August by Viking) and Patti Smith have written their own books by themselves,” he says, “and both with such great excellence, I think that’s something that’s a little bit unusual. With Keith, it’s been like a number of musician bios in that they just seem to be teaming up with much better writers. Or at least more experienced writers.”
Notably, most of these successful tomes — which also include Eric Clapton’s “Clapton: The Autobiography” (Broadway, 2008) and Susan Boyle’s “The Woman I was Born to Be: My Story” (Atria, 2010), as well as upcoming projects from Jerry Lee Lewis and David Bowie — have targeted Baby Boomer audiences. (Though bestselling autobiographies from Motley Crue, Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis and Guns ‘n’ Roses guitarist Slash all moved enough units to demonstrate the increased nostalgia-driven buying power of thirty- and fortysomethings as well.)
But the younger generations — those who grew up with hip-hop and who currently comprise the target pop-music- buying audience — are far less certain propositions.
Uncertainty aside, the hip-hop memoir would be strapped to find a more high-profile subject than Jay-Z, who has sold well over 40 million records, appeared on “Oprah,” and recently posed for the cover of Forbes with Warren Buffett.
His book, much like Dylan’s tome, is highly revealing yet hardly a tell-all, offering clear-eyed reflections on Jay’s stint in the drug trade and his assault charges in 1999, while glossing over such headline-making subjects as the rapper’s marriage to R&B superstar Beyonce and his vicious feud with contemporary Nas. The book boasts cover art of Andy Warhol’s golden-hued “Rorschach” print, with the rapper’s name consigned to small print in the upper left corner — hardly a typical memoir jacket. (Notably, the rapper’s image appears only once in the heavily illustrated volume.)
But despite its eccentricities, “Decoded” editor Christopher Jackson has high hopes for the book.
“The book industry is very apprehensive about the hip-hop audience,” Jackson says. “But there is certainly a proven readership there. Tupac Shakur’s book of poetry sold something like 600,000 copies.”
The slain rapper’s handwritten verse collection, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” (MTV, 1999), was indeed a bright spot for the subgenre, which also saw a bump from 50 Cent’s 2007 foray into pulp fiction with “The Ski Mask Way” on his own Time Warner imprint G-Unit Books. But aside from memoirs by Chuck D and Russell Simmons, and the uncategorizable first-person printed output from Wu-Tang Clan founder the RZA (“The Wu-Tang Manual” and “The Tao of Wu,” both for Riverhead), few rapper memoirs have broken through to a larger audience, a problem Jackson pins to the lack of quality content, rather than a soft market.
“The problem has been with the books, not with the audience,” he says. “People are dying for this sort of book.”
Tasked with tapping into that audience is marketing firm Droga5, which aligned with Microsoft search engine Bing for an unusual campaign. Starting last month, pages from the book were “hidden” in various locations around the country — from billboards to jacket linings and the bottoms of hotel swimming pools — with Bing organizing a scavenger hunt for the scattered pages.
Jackson says he was glad to have Microsoft assist with costs for the campaign — an undisclosed amount, but presumably higher than a typical book push — though he describes that support as a bit “unnerving.”
“Jay and I were actually going through pages down to the last second, and the marketing campaign hinges on every page being worth displaying. It makes you think differently about the book.”
From his 360-deal with Live Nation, his marketing partnerships, his three years as Def Jam CEO and his ventures into the headlining slots of such rock-oriented festivals as Coachella and Glastonbury, the rapper has been opportunistic about exploring alternative revenue streams to supplement the increasingly unsteady album sales-model. Should “Decoded” perform well, it’s likely other veteran MCs will be knocking on the doors of publishing houses.
As former Vibe editor-in-chief Danyel Smith reminds, alluding to a lyric from the rapper’s “What More Can I Say”: “In 2003, Jay told everyone to stop wearing Throwback jerseys, and they did. So I have the feeling this might be the beginning of a trend.”