Pop obsessions fuel quickie bios

Books: Publishers strike while a star is hot. So, before many young idols have even got a life, they've got a life story.

March 07, 2000|By Monica Eng | Monica Eng,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Harry Potter mania may have captured media headlines last year, but another publishing phenomenon may have put more young noses in books than Harry did: unauthorized biographies.

"Unauthorized" may be a little misleading.

These fan-targeted books are shamelessly flattering to their subjects, and no one would call them great works of literature. But they are great sellers.

The boy band 'N Sync has inspired two giant sellers. According to its publisher, Random House, there are 750,000 copies of " 'N Sync: The Official Book" in print, whereas Scholastic Paperbacks reports 450,000 copies in print of " 'N Sync-Backstage Pass: Your Kickin' Keepsake Scrapbook!"

Meanwhile, New American Library (an imprint of Penguin Putnam) has produced 275,000 copies of "The Heart and Soul of Nick Carter" to keep up with demand, and Elina Furman's "Ricky Martin" (which hit No. 35 on the New York Times best-seller list) was even excerpted last summer in a Chicago newspaper.

The sales figures for the 'N Sync books would be impressive for any title, but what makes the two paperbacks more astonishing still is that they were competing in a field of 16 other 'N Sync fan books published last year. If that sounds like a lot, consider this: Under the combined subject headings of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and Ricky Martin, the publishing industry churned out 64 separate titles in 1999.

"In the mid-'80s and early '90s we did New Kids On The Block and Brad Pitt and those all did fine, but [the demand has] never been near this," says Judith Haut of Random House Children's Books, referring to the company's huge successes with an official 'N Sync book and an unofficial Leonardo DiCaprio paperback.

Although a handful of these fan books have been approved by the subject, the vast majority fall into the "unauthorized" category, which, on the surface, seems to promise dirt. But that paradigm doesn't apply to this fan-friendly genre. Any journalist who has written a critical word about a boy band knows that their slavishly loyal and Internet-savvy followers are well-organized and easily offended. Between this concern, the fear of lawsuits and the need for speed -- getting star approval is time-consuming -- the uncritical and unauthorized road presents writers with the easiest path.

Still, there are times when an authorized version is worth pursuing. One such was when Backstreet Boy Nick Carter authorized his mother Jane to write "The Heart and Soul of Nick Carter." The book promised "secrets only a mother would know," like: "Virtually from the beginning of his life, Nick gravitated -- and gyrated even in his diapers -- to music."

In addition to writing an introduction to the book called "My Mother/Myself," Nick did a live appearance to promote it.

"A week after Nick attended a signing of the book, it hit the best-seller list," Burke says. "So in my opinion it can do a lot better when the celebrity signs on because they help with promotion. Unauthorized can sound more attractive, but I don't think your sales figures will prove that out, especially when you are talking about his kind of pop culture quick hit. If there are 10 books out there, and the star signs on for one, that's the one [people] want."

Although plenty of teen-agers buy these books, Craig Walker of Scholastic Paperbacks says his company's biggest fan book buyers are generally between 9 and 12.

Many see this book boom as an extension of the public's cable TV-fed obsession with celebiographical shows, such as MTV's "BIOrhythms," VH1's "Behind the Music," A&E's "Biography," E! Entertainment Television's "Celebrity Profiles," "True Hollywood Story" and "Mysteries and Scandals" and most recently MSNBC's "Headliners & Legends." But probably one of the biggest factors in their popularity is the late-'90s teen pop culture boom that has extended from boy bands and movies to TV and publishing and found teen-agers (not to mention hordes of tweeners) spending a big chunk of their estimated $153 billion in disposable income on pop entertainment last year.

Perhaps the word "biography" is a little heavy for these publications, which are printed in oversized type, often run to 50,000 words and take as little as three weeks to write. Branded with titles such as "Give It To You: The Jordan Knight Story," "Ricky Martin: Rockin' The House" or "Britney Spears: Stylin'!", these are often less probing analyses of lives than fan-targeted extensions of Tiger Beat articles.

Unlike prestigious authors of fiction, quickie bio writers are rarely given the luxury of waiting for the muse to strike. Their books must be produced on demand under tight deadlines and while the audience is still interested.

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