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Alison Stine

How Prince Harry made a royal bestseller

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Hours after its January publication date and title was announced, a book launched into the top 10 bestsellers on Amazon. An audiobook read by the author will be released simultaneously, and translations into 16 languages have already been planned for this book that hasn't even been published yet.

The book is Prince Harry's memoir "Spare," and though it's been in the works since summer, the finalization of details, such as its official publication date of January 10, 2023, has created shockwaves in both the royal and book worlds. From its tongue-in-cheek title and its secret ghostwriter to the timing of it all, why did Harry decide to tell his story now, what might be in the pages, and why does it matter?

The publisher of "Spare," Penguin Random House, describes the book in a statement as "intimate and heartfelt" and created "with raw, unflinching honesty." This is a pretty standard description for memoirs. "Unflinching: The Making of a Canadian Sniper" is also described as raw; unflinching's in the title. Trevor Noah's 2016 memoir "Born a Crime" is labeled "unflinching," as is James Ellroy's "My Dark Places." Does any writer flinch when they write their memoir?

In their statement, Penguin Random House says Prince Harry will be "writing about some moments from his life publicly for the first time," though the only specific moment mentioned is the funeral procession when Harry and his elder brother William walked behind the coffin of their mother, Princess Diana. Harry himself is quoted in the statement as saying, "I'm writing this not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become. I've worn many hats over the years, both literally and figuratively."

"The more traditional memoir focuses on seeking and attaining redemption."

Memoir is a chance to be candid about those hats. Writer Annette Gendler describes memoir as "a personal story of the past, based on memory." Gathered under the umbrella of creative nonfiction, memoir can utilize some of the tools of narrative while avoiding the huge canvas of autobiography. A memoir might only focus on a small portion of a life, as opposed to an autobiography, which covers an entire life. As memoirist and novelist Elizabeth Kadetsky writes on LitHub, "The more traditional memoir focuses on seeking and attaining redemption." It may be less redemption Harry — who, along with his wife Meghan Markle, stepped away from royal duties in 2020 — is seeking, but rather more understanding. "I can help show that no matter where we come from, we have more in common than we think," his statement reads.

Memoirs are also big business. Over 800,000 titles of adult nonfiction were sold in 2021, according to Publisher's Weekly, making it the top-selling genre. Penguin Random House may be hoping to imitate some of publisher Crown's success in 2020 when the top-selling title of the year was a memoir: Barack Obama's "A Promised Land," which sold 2.5 million print copies alone. 

According to the publisher's statement, Harry plans to donate at least some of the proceeds from his book. Though exact percentages are not mentioned, book sales will aid two British charities he has an established history of supporting: Sentebale, a group he co-founded, which supports children and young adults impacted by HIV/AIDS in Lesotho and Botswana; and Royal patron WellChild, a nonprofit which helps children and young adults with complex medical needs receive care at home. 

Along with his oversight, the book project has his signature thoughtfulness: Harry apparently reached out to ex-girlfriends.

Harry's already bestselling memoir joins the ranks of books like "Becoming" by former First Lady Michelle Obama, "I Am Malala" by Malala Yousafzai and "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt. (You do not have to be famous alrady to pen a memoir that becomes a bestseller, but it doesn't hurt.) Memoir as an art form is also not without controversy. From James Frey and his "Million Little Pieces" to Alice Sebold, some memoirists have taken so many liberties their books become known for their distance from the truth. Frey was revealed to have invented much of his popular addiction memoir, which was first shopped around as a novel. "Lucky," Sebold's memoir of surviving rape, was pulled out of distribution after the man at the center of it was exonerated after four decades in prison. 

J.D. Vance used his bestselling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy" as a trampoline from which to cannonball into TrumpWorld politics. He's on the ballot in Ohio, despite many Appalachians' frustrations that his book purports to speak for an entire region, rather than simply telling his own personal, romanticized story.  

But "raw," as Harry's memoir is described, does not mean unassisted. Harry is working with a ghostwriter on the book: J.R. Moehringer, a novelist and journalist who won a Pulitzer while at the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps Moehringer's most recognizable work is "The Tender Bar," his coming-of-age memoir which was adapted into a film starring Ben Affleck. 

The New York Times describes Moehringer as an "acclaimed ghostwriter" who is "known for probing the tensions inherent in father-son relationships," which led The Guardian to speculate Harry's book may have some paternal explosions of its own about King Charles III: "No doubt Moehringer was chosen to write the prince's confessional because he seemed a kindred spirit, wronged and voluble," though perhaps "like all writers, Moehringer will have seen the project as another way to write about himself."

Harry may have a ghostwriter, but the idea of the project seems to be taking control of the narrative, his narrative, which has always been an issue for Harry and Meghan — and Princess Diana before them. Harry says in his statement he's "excited for people to read a firsthand account of my life that's accurate and wholly truthful." Along with his oversight, the book project has his signature thoughtfulness: Harry apparently reached out to ex-girlfriends, seeking their permission to be included in the book. And the publisher's announcement of its publication date and that title, a play on the "heir and the spare" saying, that monarchs need multiple children to ensure their family line? It came well after his wife Meghan's Spotify podcast "Archetypes" premiered in August. 

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