The Summer of Diana
Ten Years After Her Death,
A Wave of Beach Books Hits;
Will Brown's 'Land Big'?
By JEFFREY A. TRACHTENBERG
April 26, 2007; Page B1
This summer marks the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana`s death in a Paris car crash, 16 years after her tale of not-so-happily-ever-after began to dominate headlines. There are now an estimated 180 books in print in the U.S. chronicling her pop-culture fable, alternately comic and tragic, squalid and majestic.
Publishers — whose only sure-fire hit this summer is the final Harry Potter novel — are betting that readers will be as captivated as ever by the familiar arc of the princess`s life, even though once-hearty sales of books about her have been flagging.
At least 14 new Diana titles are set for publication this year, but no one has more at stake in rekindling that interest than Tina Brown, the former high-profile editor of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair who banked a “healthy seven-figure advance” from Bertelsmann AG`s Doubleday imprint for “The Diana Chronicles,” according to the publisher.
Doubleday is printing 200,000 copies that will reach stores on June 12. The comprehensive biography promises new insights regarding Diana`s pursuit of Prince Charles, her sad early years and how she used the media to her own ends. Beyond juicy details, Ms. Brown says she set out to write a book that examined the princess in a media and social context while discussing the impact of celebrity culture: “Why Diana was important, why she continues to fascinate, and what we should make of her 10 years after her death.”
Ms. Brown`s own celebrity will feed a major marketing blitz for the book. It will be a July main selection of Bertelsmann`s Book-of-the-Month Club, and an excerpt will appear in the July issue of Vanity Fair that hits newsstands in early June. Ms. Brown will appear on ABC`s “Good Morning America” June 11 and 12. “It`s a very strong lineup,” says Stephen Rubin, president of Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group.
Of late, Ms. Brown, a 53-year-old native of England who is now a U.S. citizen, has been outside the media whirl she once dominated. Her magazine start-up “Talk” was canceled in 2002. She left her CNBC talk show in 2005 after her two-year contract expired to work on the Diana book and later suspended her weekly Washington Post column for the same reason. To take on that project, she canceled an earlier title, “The Icarus Complex,” about the fall from grace of rich overachievers such as Martha Stewart and Enron`s Kenneth Lay, which she had agreed to write for Random House.
Some of the Diana books due out this summer
Americans have always had a soft spot for the royal family. The nation that prides itself on its rejection of traditional aristocracy is also fascinated by it. Princess Diana has been on the cover of People magazine 54 times, more than anyone else. On the screen, “The Queen,” about the royal family`s handling of the days immediately following Diana`s death, produced a healthy $56 million in U.S. box-office receipts, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., and a best actress Oscar for Helen Mirren.
Americans relate to the Cinderella story of a shy, awkward girl who turned into a glamorous star. “What makes it an ongoing saga is that her memory lives on through her husband and the actions of her two sons,” says Lorraine Shanley, a partner in Market Partners International Inc., an industry consulting company. The recent breakup of Prince William, Princess Diana`s older son, and his former girlfriend, Kate Middleton, was splashed across magazines on both sides of the Atlantic.
Those affections have limits. Two major entries last year, Paul Burrell`s “The Way We Were: Remembering Diana” and Sarah Bradford`s “Diana,” never caught fire. “The Diana books have been trending down from a sales perspective over the last couple of years because there hasn`t been anything new to say,” says Edward Ash-Milby, the biography buyer for Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation's largest book retailer. “But this is going to be a summer of celebrating Diana, and that will re-create interest in her.”
Among the activities being planned is a July 1 “Concert for Diana” being organized by her two sons at London`s Wembley Stadium. The benefit concert will be televised in the U.S.
As for books, the sweep of upcoming titles ranges from Christopher Andersen`s serious look at the royal family after Diana to Colin McDowell`s analysis of her fashion sensibility. Barnes & Noble`s Mr. Ash-Milby, who has read Ms. Brown`s book, expects it to “land big.”
Independent booksellers, though, will need to be convinced that there is still enough interest in Princess Diana to create sustained sales. “It`s a gamble for us,” says Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan. “Will there be new information and pictures people haven`t seen before? And will there be so much news coverage that people won`t have to read the book?” Ms. Jennings says she has ordered 20 copies of “The Diana Chronicles” because those who are interested will want to buy the book immediately. “We can`t miss a sale,” she says. Ms. Brown`s book doesn`t have a photo spread.
Elsewhere, the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill., has ordered only two copies, based on weak sales of recent Diana-related titles. “Publicity could save `The Diana Chronicles,` but there isn`t a lot of enthusiasm in the heartland,” says Roberta Rubin, owner. One potential bright sign: a customer has already reserved a copy. “Somebody has gotten word, so I`ll buy a few more,” says Ms. Rubin.
Alison Weir, a writer of histories about the monarchy, says there are two schools of thought regarding Princess Diana in England. As time has passed, some are more willing to see her flaws. But for many others, her life and death remain an emotional touchstone. “We`re a world obsessed with youth, and she never ages,” says Ms. Weir. That she died as the mother of two young boys, and during the midst of a romance, gilds her as both tragic and heroic.
Ms. Brown, a longtime Diana watcher who shared a meal with the princess only a few months before her death, says she developed “a great affection for Diana” during the course of writing her book. Ms. Brown describes a woman with an intellectual inferiority complex: “She used to say, `I`m thick as a plank.` What she had was a huge emotional intelligence that people responded to.” That Princess Diana`s mother left the family for another man when Diana was still quite young created a woman whose “neediness collided with a culture designed not to meet those needs. It couldn`t have been more cataclysmic.”
Although Doubleday has tried to keep the book under wraps, the Daily Mail in London has published several stories so far about it, one of which says: “Princess Diana was a manipulative schemer who was ruthless in her pursuit of Prince Charles, a bombshell book will claim. The account of her extraordinary life, to be published weeks before the tenth anniversary of her death, paints the princess as spiteful, media-savvy and neurotic.”
The story attracted dismayed comments from some online readers. But Ms. Brown says “the book is an affectionate and multifaceted portrayal of Diana,” not a hatchet job. The English press, she says, is “all about steering and generating conflict.”
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