Why Do Women’s Music Memoirs Sell So Erratically?
In September, I wrote a feature for Publishers Weekly discussing many new memoirs — many written by women, and some which are just now being released.
Carly Simon’s Boys in the Trees (Flatiron Books 2015) has sold over 77,000 copies — a few thousand ahead of the first-print run the publisher projected. I can’t help but wonter what’s driven the sales: Is it the best book of its kind out there right now? Did readers just hope to discover the subject of Simon’s song, “You’re So Vain”? Is Simon’s memoir performing any better than memoirs released by male musicians (it has sold at least 30,000 more copies than Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink) during the same period? And how’s it selling compared to other memoirs released about the same time that were written by women?
A few weeks ago in this column, which generated some lively discussion, I took a look at sales numbers of new music memoirs. As I looked over those, and as I read Rita Coolidge’s new memoir, Delta Lady (HarperCollins), out just this week, I wondered why the numbers of music memoirs by women were generally lower than those of their male counterparts. I decided to look at the sales of some relatively recent titles, and then to end the column with a number of questions.
Three years ago, Linda Ronstadt told her story of her early days in the California country rock scene and her devotion to her art in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir (Simon & Schuster, 2013); She did not discuss her Parkinson’s or its effects in the memoir; she only hinted at it. However, we learned of her condition soon after the book’s release. Sales were modest, given her stature and popularity: 30,860 (hardcover); 8,732 (paperback).
The year before, in what was announced as a major book of the season, Carole King delivered what may be one of the best-written music memoirs in recent times — Natural Woman (Grand Central 2012). The book’s sales never flew through the roof, though I’m sure they were quite reasonable for the publisher: 36,495 (HC); 10,567 (PB). Those numbers likely disappointed, since hardcover sales of the book were just over 36,000, falling far short of the first printing of about 70,000. That may be a reason the paperback followed so quickly after the hardcover.
Of course, I must pause for a moment and ask: Why did Carly Simon’s memoir outsell both King’s and Ronstadt’s? What was Simon willing to reveal about herself that neither of the other two felt it important enough to reveal? Is Simon’s memoir a better read? Is it written in a livelier and more engaging manner that the other two?
Before King, Ronstadt, and Simon, Pattie Boyd told the story of her life in rock and roll — and the men in her life — in Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me (HC, 2007 Crown Archetype; PB Three Rivers Press 2008). The hardcover has sold almost 100,000 copies, while the paperback has sold close to 50,000. We can speculate, of course, that curiosity about Clapton, Harrison, and the “Layla” triangle drove sales on Boyd’s book.
The biggest sellers in this area, in the past few years, are Patti Smith’s two memoirs, maybe unsurprisingly because they are so well-written and they range more widely over life and art. Just Kids (Ecco, 2010) — about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe — comes in at 66,000 in hardcover, but the paperback has sold well over 402,000. Smith’s recent M Train (Knopf, 2015) has sold right at 114,000 in hardcover. Again, what about her memoirs vault the sales into the firmament, leaving behind even the men (with the exception of Keith Richards, whose Life, has sold half a million copies)?
One of the smartest memoirs of late 2015, Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Riverhead 2015), has sold a modest 41,000 copies, while Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (Dey Street), now out for over a year and already in paperback, has sold only about 29,500 copies. Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless (Doubleday), published in September, has sold about 22,000.
Meanwhile, out for just about a month now, Lita Ford’s Living Like a Runaway (Dey Street 2016) has sold close to 5,300. Marshall Chapman’s very entertaining and thoughtful Goodbye Little Rock and Roller (St. Martin’s, 2003) sold a little over 4,200 in hardcover and about 1,600 in paperback. Viv Albertine’s relatively recent Clothes. Clothes. Clothes. Music. Music. Music. Music. Boys. Boys. Boys. (Thomas Dunne 2014) sold just under 6,500, while Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl (Penguin) has sold close to 7,500 copies in paperback.
When we look at all these sales numbers alone, Boyd, Simon, and Smith come in at the best-selling spots. But why? Are they simply the best written of the bunch? Do they have better marketing campaigns that reach broader audiences? Are they the best-known musicians, more fondly remembered by fans?
Those lead me to some more substantive questions about all these memoirs by women:
Are readers conditioned to want a good love story from a woman musician while they want men’s memoirs to tell every salacious detail of the women they used and abused? Are these truly memoirs, when the women are telling stories through the eyes of the men in their lives? Do readers expect women musicians to provide the details about all the sexual partners they’ve had, just as they expect from men? (Simon provides details; Ronstadt doesn’t.) Can editors encourage women to write stories that reveal their attempts to grapple honestly with the inequalities of the music business, or do editors feel as if their hands are tied? (One of the beauties of Coolidge’s Delta Lady is her powerful candor about some of these issues.)
No doubt, more questions will occur to readers, too, and my hope is that we can discuss them here.