Put Angelina Jolie’s face on a magazine cover and sales will surely rise. Get her to write a memoir and it would be worth millions. But write a book about her, without her cooperation, and you’re taking a chance.
Coming a week after the release of her latest film, "Salt," a biography has been published. "Angelina," by Andrew Morton, is out with an announced first printing of 150,000 copies and the promise of a "spellbinding" adventure. Openly billed as "Unauthorized," the book includes intimate details on her troubled childhood, on such past lovers as Billy Bob Thornton and Timothy Hutton and, of course, her years with Brad Pitt.
Morton has a strong commercial history, but better when he works with a subject’s involvement (Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky) than without (Tom Cruise, Madonna).
In the age of the internet, the unauthorized biography has been increasingly scooped by instant, endless online gossip.
"Sales of tell-all celebrity biographies have been negatively impacted by the information that is available on the internet or in print," says Patricia Bostelman, vice president of marketing for Barnes & Noble Inc.
"The Morton book is also competing with all the press Jolie has been getting around the launch of Salt,’ in which she is deliberately staying on message about her life with Brad and the kids. The audience for the book has often read all the key revelations prior to publication."
"There is much more competition from the tabloids and the internet, so you have to go beyond the day-to-day gossip," says Morton’s editor, Hope Dellon of St. Martin’s Press. "It’s got to go deeper than that. It’s got to have some fresh insight and revelations, and we think Andrew’s book does."
The Jolie book tells of her strained relationship with her father, actor Jon Voight; her cultish bond with Thornton and her ever-growing family with Pitt. Identified sources include a childhood caretaker, an alleged former drug dealer and a close friend of Jolie’s mother, the late Marcheline Bertrand, whom Dellon believes is given a fresh and thorough take in Morton’s book.
Unnamed friends and associates are cited for allegations that Jolie fought with co-star Winona Ryder on the set of "Girl, Interrupted," or had been intrigued by Pitt long before they became involved. A critique of Pitt’s ex-wife, Jennifer Aniston, was offered by "a psychologist who has met with Jennifer socially," while insights on Pitt-Jolie were provided by a "psychologist in the Brad, Angie and Jennifer circle," and "an observer with an inside track on the couple."
"It’s a dilemma, because there are people working in Hollywood who if we used their names would have every door closed on them," Dellon says. "We make sure that what they say seems plausible and they seem to know what they’re talking about."
The unauthorized celebrity book was defined and mastered by Kitty Kelley, who in the 1980s and 1990s had million sellers in hardcover alone with biographies of Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan. Her latest, "Oprah," was a hit by most standards, but not for Kelley, who herself has said that the internet endangers her kind of book. "Oprah" has sold just 115,000 copies so far, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks around 70-75 percent of sales.
"The sales of Oprah’ were well below our expectations," Bostelman said, adding that the book was still a best seller.
Beyond Kelley, there is a core of writers taking on familiar celebrities, including C. David Heymann (the Kennedys) and Edward Klein (Katie Couric, Hillary Clinton). But the market is so tough now that not even the death of Michael Jackson could expand it. Only a couple of Jackson biographies, briefly, were best sellers, among them Ian Halperin’s "Unmasked" and J. Randy Taraborrelli’s "Michael Jackson," an updated edition of an older book.
"Everyone was on overload," says Taraborrelli’s publisher, Jamie Raab of Grand Central Publishing. "We put out the one book because it was essentially already written. By the time a new one would have come, people would have been satiated. There were many proposals floating around and we passed on them."
The celebrity books most likely to sell are those written by (or at least involving) the celebrities themselves. Chelsea Handler, Tori Spelling and Mackenzie Phillips are among those with recent hits.
While some memoirs flop, such as Sarah Silverman’s, more celebrities keep getting signed up. A month after Silverman’s book came out, Demi Moore reached a seven-figure deal with the same publisher, HarperCollins.
"There is a distinction between biographies and celebrity memoirs," Bostelman says. "Celebrity memoirs seem to be gaining sales depending on the strength of the author’s platform and fan base."
"A lot of those books don’t work, but some work extremely well," says Raab, who published Jon Stewart’s best-selling "America (The Book)" and has another Stewart work, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Book)," scheduled for the fall.
"The ones that work are the ones written by celebrities who actually want to write a book and have something to say. Jon Stewart has worked very hard on his books and that clearly makes a difference. It’s his work and he’s committed to it."