Is Prince Harry’s $20 million Spare deal actually worth it?

Spare has reportedly sold over 400,000 copies in one day
Spare has reportedly sold over 400,000 copies in one day

Sales records have been as comprehensively smashed as the dog bowl at Nottingham Cottage. The Duke of Sussex’s Spare is the fastest-selling non-fiction book ever, having sold 400,000 copies – whether as print books, e-books or audio books – on its first day of publication.

“We always knew this book would fly but it is exceeding even our most bullish expectations,” Larry Finlay, the managing director of the Transworld imprint at Penguin Random House (PRH), has said of the memoir. “As far as we know, the only books to have sold more in their first day are those starring the other Harry (Potter).”

There is certainly something in the Duke’s account of his relationship with the rest of the Windsor clan that recalls Harry Potter’s marginalised existence in the cupboard under the stairs at the Dursley household in Privet Drive. But the market for his gloomy reflections is clearly huge.

The memoir has proved a huge boost for book retailers in what is traditionally one of the quietest weeks of the year – with book-lovers having by now spent their Christmas book tokens or hunkered down for a few weeks with the books they received as gifts. There are reports that those bookshops that opened early on publication day were not exactly overwhelmed with customers. But the huge sales figures show that people are getting their copies of Spare from somewhere.

It’s a generational thing. When I talk to people about Prince Harry I find that, more often than not, older people denounce him as a Woke whinger while younger people find him an appealing mixture of cheeky chappie and mental health guru. So younger people are more likely to be splashing out on Spare; and statistically, younger people are more likely to order books online or buy e-books, and less likely to visit a bricks-and-mortar bookshop.

The first customer to buy a copy of Spare at Waterstones, Piccadilly - Carlos Jasso/Bloomberg
The first customer to buy a copy of Spare at Waterstones, Piccadilly – Carlos Jasso/Bloomberg

It is already hard to remember that a couple of days ago some commentators were predicting that the book would be a damp squib, and for two different reasons. The first was that the spoilers obtained from a leaked Spanish version of the book and published in the press last week would mean that readers would greet the actual publication of the book with a yawn.

But there is an art to releasing intriguing details from a book pre-publication (newspaper serialisations of the juiciest parts of a book tend to increase sales rather than sate readers’ interest) and, although the leak seems to have been fortuitous in this case, it whetted the public’s appetite at just the right time. The law allows for those who leak details of books to be sued, but in this instance PRH might find it difficult to prove loss of earnings.

Some commentators also predicted that PRH would turn out to have been sold a pup on the grounds that the Duke’s latest round of loose-lipped revelations and broken confidences would turn the public against him. But if you’re one of the Duke’s army of fans, you’re not likely to have turned against him because of anything he’s said this week. And besides, an awful lot of those sales will have been made to people who can’t stand the Duke but, no doubt to their shame, can’t resist the gossip.

It always seemed likely, in truth, that the book would do well. Sales of royal biographies have been steeply rising in recent years, thanks to such explosive bestsellers as Tom Bower’s book on the (now) King, Rebel Prince (2018). And there has been a particular interest in the Sussexes: the writer Omid Scobie recently reported that his 2020 book on the couple, Finding Freedom (written with some collaboration from the Duchess) “was the fastest-selling royal book in two decades” until Spare.

Copies of Spare on sale at Waterstones Piccadilly - PA
Copies of Spare on sale at Waterstones Piccadilly – PA

So we could say that PRH looks to have made a sound investment. But it depends, of course, on how much of an investment it actually made.

Contradictory details have emerged about size of the Duke’s advance. It is telling that no literary agent – a breed not known for being backward in coming forward – has been boasting about securing a great deal for the Duke. Perhaps the Duke, with his customary distaste for the media poking their noses into his affairs, has sworn his agent to secrecy, to the extent of not announcing his or her identity. Or (since we know the identity of the agent for his speaking engagements, Harry Walker), it may be the case that the Duke did not use a literary agent.

In 2021 The Daily Mail quoted an “impeccably placed source in the publishing industry” as saying that the Duke had presided over a publishing auction in Montecito, with representatives from different publishers attending either in person or via video call: “Those involved were actually very shocked by his approach which was to look at them coldly and state his demands – $25 million [£18 million].”

The same source reported that “the final figure was way north of that, possibly as much as £35-40 million [£25-29 million]”, for a four-book deal. The Duke’s lawyers responded with a statement saying that the Duke did not negotiate the deal himself, he did not personally bring a “package” to the table, and no publishers flew to the US to meet him. Other outlets report the advance as being $20 million (£16.5 million).

There have been suggestions that the four-book deal may be rounded out with such volumes as a book on the Invictus Games, or even a book on “wellness” by the Duchess of Sussex. However, it seems likely that PRH will be expecting Spare, with its jaw-dropping revelations, to make up the bulk of what they have paid to the Duke.

Publishers have a long history of paying large advances to eminent figures in order to bask in the prestige of association with their name, and don’t always expect the books to earn them out. But the advance that, say, HarperCollins paid to David Cameron for his memoir For the Record was a mere £800,000. Serious money only goes to public figures if they are likely to sell well. Barack and Michelle Obama rather knocked the Duke and Duchess into a cocked hat when they received a reported $65 million deal in 2017 for a memoir apiece – but then they have an even higher world profile and, in Mr Obama’s case, proven sales success as an author.

PRH will be hoping against hope that Spare is worth the money they’ve paid; an acquaintance who works for the publisher tells me his colleagues are banking on Prince Harry to deliver a hefty company-wide bonus in 2023. The auguries are good. Andy Lewis, the former books editor of The Hollywood Reporter, has calculated on his blog The Optionist that PRH would need to sell 1.7 million copies of Spare to recoup an advance of $20 million.

According to Lewis, all Spare has to do is sell 850,000 copies in the US – which would make it “a modest hit … say, the 14th or 15th bestselling book of the year” – plus an equal number of foreign sales. (The calculation also takes into account the $1 million that PRH reportedly paid to the Duke’s ghost writer, JR Moehringer.)

Unless everybody who’s going to buy the book was so desperate that they bought it on the day of publication, it seems likely Spare will smash that target, and see the Duke start to earn royalties on top of his advance (royalties are typically set at 10-12 per cent of a hardback, 30 per cent of an ebook). He has promised to donate much of his earnings to Sentebale, an organisation he founded in 2006 with Prince Seeiso of Lesotho to help children affected by HIV in Africa.

Despite the fact that the figures aren’t huge compared with the Sussexes’ reported $100 million Netflix deal, it looks like Spare is going to provide an agreeable top-up – in addition to settling a few scores.

Published by anthonyhayble

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