After playing Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. on Sept. 14, Bruce Springsteen is slated to make a series of decidedly more intimate live appearances - at bookstores and The New Yorker festival. Having performed for 2.1 million fans and grossed $232 million (according to Billboard Boxscore) on his globe-spanning The River Tour, the Boss will next attempt to convert those listeners to readers when he embarks on the promotional campaign for his autobiography, Born to Run, out Sept. 27.
With the $10-million advance Simon & Schuster is reported to have paid him, Springsteen, who turns 67 on Sept. 23, may well have received the highest payout ever for a music memoir. (The publisher declined to confirm the amount.) Given his fan base, the book will certainly do well, but publishing insiders wonder whether Simon & Schuster can earn back its investment.
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There is some precedent. Keith Richards' Life, published in 2010, sold one million copies internationally in its first year -- 554,000 in the United States, according to Nielsen BookScan -- going a long way toward recouping his reported $7 million advance. Written with British journalist James Fox, Life made headlines with its saucy revelations about Richards' sexual conquests, his formidable drug habits, and the size of Mick Jagger's manhood. But it also drew near universal acclaim from critics for its literary merit, which extended its readership beyond Rolling Stones obsessives. The book's success helped propel a new wave of memoirs by rock n' roll legends including Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Kim Gordon.
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"There was a time when there were a lot of really shitty as-told-to music memoirs, and [Life] was so well done that it pushed a lot of people to do it at that level," says Carrie Thornton, editorial director of Dey Street books, which published Gordon's 2015 book, Girl in a Band, and is releasing books by The Smiths' Johnny Marr and Joy Division's Peter Hook this fall. "Bruce may have the same effect. It's going to be a real treasure."
While there is no recipe for a great autobiography, publishing veterans agree that the more sensational trappings of rock n' roll are not sufficient ingredients. "A bad rock memoir is one that is 90 percent about groupies and drugs and fights in the band," says Sean Cassidy, president of the public relations firm DKC, which repped Joe Perry's book, Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith. "I want to come away with an understanding of how the band made it. And they didn't make it because of groupies and drugs."
The quality of the narrative depends in part on a star's reasons for writing his or her story in the first place. Money is an obvious factor. "With multimillion dollar advances being thrown around, there's a pretty strong motivation for rock figures to apply themselves in this area - especially with the music business being as shaky as it is in terms of sales," says Gerald Howard, who edited Chrissie Hynde's 2015 coming-of-age memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender.
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Another impetus is the opportunity for a star to burnish their legend or set the record straight. "Lots of people write a memoir because they're vain and they want a book," says David Ritz, one of the top ghostwriters in the business. Or, he says, "You have a publicist who wants to build your audience - books are a way to expand the brand." But the better ones have loftier aspirations. Ritz, who has co-authored 37 autobiographies including Perry's, Ray Charles' and Willie Nelson's (and is working on Lenny Kravitz's), says, "Most books turn out good when the artists approach [them] as a way to understand themselves."
For Patti Smith, whose memoir Just Kids won the National Book Award in 2010 and has sold an impressive 479,000 copies to date (hardcover and trade paperback, according to Nielsen), the motivation was especially personal. "I had never planned to write a memoir," she says in an email. "I wrote mostly poetry, prose poems and quite a bit unpublished fiction. But on March 8, 1989, the day before he died, Robert Mapplethorpe [her close friend and a celebrated photographer] asked me if I would write our story. I promised that I would…. It was often a painful, yet sometimes an exhilarating learning process."
Like Smith, Springsteen is said to have written every word of his book himself. Born to Run has been embargoed until its release, which has led some to speculate that Simon & Schuster might want to keep it from critics. But as Springsteen's lyrics and his concert banter make clear, he's a natural storyteller - especially when it comes to his fraught relationship with his father, a major theme of the book according to early readers. And if the recent Vanity Fair cover profile of Springsteen is any indication, the book will be more introspective than your typical sex-and-drugs rock memoir: The only drugs Springsteen discusses at length are antidepressants.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 24 issue of Billboard.