While the world mourns the death of the princess, a publisher straddles the line between good taste and a quick buck with Kitty Kelley's gossipy portrait
Kitty Kelley’s eyes well with tears. It is 9:30 a.m. Sept. 16, the day before publication of The Royals, her gossipy, take-no-prisoners portrait of Princess Diana and the house of Windsor, and Kelley is sitting in Warner Books’ Manhattan offices, drinking her fourth cup of coffee. ”I’m sick that it’s coming out now,” she says, adding that she wanted to postpone the book until January but couldn’t persuade Warner to do so. ”Nobody has that kind of control except maybe Stephen King. And I’m not sure even he could have done anything.”
It’s a compelling scene, and Kelley may very well be utterly sincere in her grief. Still, given the book’s controversial nature, the author’s tears seem designed to defuse accusations of tastelessness and to help solve what proved to be an extraordinary marketing dilemma for Warner. Even before Diana’s death, The Royals had been a highly anticipated book. (Kelley’s previous exposes on Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, and Nancy Reagan were all best-sellers.) But the events of recent weeks, which at first seemed to be a stunning boon for the book, actually posed a major problem: At the height of a global backlash against tabloid journalism, how do you market a work that, in part, trashes a woman being canonized around the world?
Clearly, Warner had cause for concern. Never mind the salacious allegations in the book — originally scheduled to come out Sept. 23 — about Queen Elizabeth’s insatiable sex drive as a young bride, Prince Philip’s numerous extramarital trysts, and Fergie’s fondness for cocaine. The book’s unsentimental take on Diana — which includes revelations like former beau James Hewitt’s claim that Diana ”has bad breath and she wants sex all the time” — would seem tasteless after the fatal Aug. 31 car crash. ”Personally, I felt sick,” says Warner Books’ aggressive CEO, Larry Kirsh- baum, about hearing the news. Kirshbaum, who was behind such successes as The Bridges of Madison County and Madonna’s Sex, explains, ”I felt we had a monster best-seller and this could only get caught up in the question of exploitation.”
Similar thoughts were occurring 22 floors above Kirshbaum’s office. Earlier this summer, PEOPLE magazine had bought the first-serial rights to The Royals for a reported $25,000. But PEOPLE managing editor Carol Wallace decided to cancel the excerpt ”immediately” after hearing of Diana’s death, according to PEOPLE spokeswoman Susan Ollinick. ”What would have been a light and entertaining read a month ago took on a whole different tone after the death,” says Ollinick. ”It would have been perceived by our readers as dumping on the royals.”
Meanwhile, Kirshbaum and Kelley were having ”endless discussions about how much time we needed to have elapse before we brought the book out.” But such high-minded concerns faded under pressure from booksellers, who were feeling the surging demand for anything royal. On Sept. 5, Kirshbaum decided to ship a whopping 600,000 copies of the book a week early, on Sept. 17.