Panel Offers Encouraging News on Biography Market

By Dona Munker, TBC New York correspondent

The overall market for biographies remains steady, according to three trade publishing veterans who spoke at a recent meeting of the New York University Biography Seminar, organized by BIO member Gayle Feldman.

The February 20 panel comprised Jonathan Galassi, a former editor and current president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Eric Simonoff, head of the literary division of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment; and biographer James Atlas, who was recently appointed the editor of a series of biographies for a joint venture between Amazon Publishing and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and will be speaking at the 2013 Compleat Biographer conference.

Considering the turmoil besetting traditional publishing as a result of e-books, the three panelists surprisingly didn’t think that the overall market for biography had changed much. In fact, the consensus was that in 2012, biography sales in the US remained steady and were driven by the same two factors that have dominated this market niche for decades: the desire of publishers to sign up biographers who write about monumental subjects and have high name recognition, and the biography-reading public’s apparently immutable desire for familiar names and subjects. Nonetheless, Galassi said that after forty years of publishing, he didn’t think serious biography is “doing any worse than in the past.”

To add to such (relatively) good news, some publishers are showing a continuing interest in short-form biography, which springs at least in part from the digital revolution. James Atlas, who revived the popular “biographical essay” associated with Lytton Strachey by bringing it up to date in his Penguin Lives series, has a mandate from Amazon to sign up twelve similar books about well-known figures by noted authors. He is seeking writers who can cover the subject quickly and engagingly, and he’s encouraging them “to explore their own relationship with the subject” in the narrative—for example, how they became interested in the story. Atlas said that he was convinced that a market exists for “discovery biographies” of fewer than 40,000 words, of which he currently has two under contract. Amazon’s New Harvest will distribute the books electronically and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will distribute the hardcover editions.

The panelists agreed that the future of biography remains hard to predict. Both publishers and booksellers have traditionally been secretive about statistics and sales figures. Nevertheless, as Galassi observed, publishers are still buying—and getting excited about—biographies they know will be influential, regardless of how those biographies can be expected to sell. “Books that are doing pioneering work have to struggle in today’s marketplace,” he said. “But good books always have.”

Eric Simonoff, the literary agent, whose clients at William Morris may get anywhere from mid-five to low-six figure advances, cautioned that those advances don’t always amount to much over the length of time needed to research and write a biography. Galassi, however, didn’t think that biographers who write for the love of the subject or the craft necessarily need to despair, since any proposal for a biography that is sharply focused and well-written may indeed find an enthusiastic publisher, though perhaps not a large, well-heeled trade publisher.

All of which may simply go to show how little things change. As Gayle Feldman noted in her introduction, even in the early years of the twentieth century, the famed publisher Bennett Cerf, while lamenting what he regarded as biography’s general mediocrity and “lack of distinction,” nevertheless conceded that “the right book or the right author can always puncture any generalizations that can be laid down.”

Dona Munker is the writer and co-author of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution.  She is currently working on a book about the twentieth-century American poet, suffragist, and “free-lover” Sara Bard Field. She also, as time allows, has a blog about biography called “Stalking the Elephant.”