Once the result of a storied career and a long life—or at least a traumatic one—memoirs have become the medium of choice for a certain type of celebrity: young, witty, often female, with a loyal fan base and a distinct (and unfiltered) point of view. The latest to seal a book deal? Empire and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe, 32, whose forthcoming collection of personal stories spurred a fervent publishing auction, reportedly selling to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for north of $2.5 million.
To justify an advance of that size, Sidibe’s book will have to sell more than 500,000 copies. It’s no small figure, especially considering her writing credits don’t stretch far beyond her (well-received) Twitter account, but Eamon Dolan, who has his own imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, isn’t worried.
“You often wonder, in this day and age, ‘Can someone write 240 pages as well as they write 140 characters?’ ” says Dolan. “The thing about it that makes us feel like it might actually work—even though she doesn’t have quite the Q rating of Tina Fey—is that Gabby’s such a goddamn good writer.”
In 2011, Fey’s mega-best-seller, Bossypants, kick-started a wave of smart, funny, relatable memoirs. “That was really a benchmark book,” says Trish Boczkowski, VP/editorial director for Crown Archetype. “She got a sizable advance, and I think in a way she set a precedent for that, because hers was such a successful experiment.” When Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) emerged six months later to similar success, a trend was born, and everyone from Lena Dunham to Amy Poehler joined in. “It’s become kind of a tried-and-true formula,” Boczkowski says. “If you just look at the numbers on [Nielsen] BookScan between Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler—they all hit that really high-six-figure-to-one-million-copies [sales] mark.” Which is why publishers are ponying up such large advances: In May it was reported that Kaling and longtime pal B.J. Novak pulled in $7.5 million for a joint book about their friendship and off-and-on romance.
There’s logic behind these best-sellers. “Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, and Mindy Kaling—these people are writers by trade,” Boczkowski says. “And comedians in general, too, are people who have a bead on culture, and are kind of commenting on the cultural conversation at large.” These particular writers’ backgrounds are in TV, a driving factor in the rise of essay collections as opposed to straightforward tell-alls. “They’re episodic because these people are used to thinking in episodes; they’re used to thinking in skits,” Dolan says. Essays also help with a more mundane issue: scheduling. “[Fey, Kaling, and Dunham] were actively involved in making shows at the time they were writing these books, so they had to grab time when they could…. You can knock something off in a week, when you have downtime, then come back a few weeks later and knock off something else.”
When it comes to reaching readers, these books are succeeding because they’re written with clear-eyed honesty—so much so that reading them feels like you’re chatting with your best friend. “Candor is an important consideration,” says Paul Bogaards, publicity director at Knopf. “How candid are they going to be about their experiences and their life? If you think it’s going to be a whitewash, there’s not going to be as much interest.” Brutal self-deprecation is a craft that Kaling, Dunham, and Fey have professionally perfected, but for celebrities who aren’t writers by trade—like Sidibe and Pitch Perfect star Anna Kendrick, who signed a deal in April for a fall 2016 title—publishers are literally banking on their relatability, which is often tested on Twitter. One of Sidibe’s slick responses to her detractors went viral last year (“To people making mean comments about my [Golden Globes] pics, I mos def cried about it on that private jet on the way to my dream job last night #JK”), and Kendrick’s random life observations (“I like to think of myself less like ‘an adult’ and more like a ‘former fetus’ ”) are so popular among the millennial set they’re frequently turned into BuzzFeed posts.
“I’m less interested in the soup-to-nuts ‘I was born in the house I helped my father build’ kind of memoir than I am in one that takes up a certain aspect of the person’s life and really digs into it,” says Dolan. The unguarded nature of this new brand of tell-all takes a fan’s relationship with a celebrity to a deeper level. “There’s something you can get out of a book that’s really personable and relatable,” says Boczkowski. “It’s an experience, to engage with an idol like that.”
This feature originally appeared in the June 19, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly. To subscribe, head to ew.com/allaccess.