Written by Elizabeth A Harris and Alexandra Alter
It seemed like a sure thing, or as close to a sure thing as is possible in book publishing: Prince Harry, who was living in self-imposed exile after his stormy exit from the British royal family, was writing a tell-all. After months of frenzied speculation, the book has a publication date: Jan. 10, 2023, according to industry executives.
The memoir, the first in a competitive multi-book deal with Penguin Random House, was initially scheduled for late 2022 and expected to be a blockbuster. It was part of a broader push by Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, to build their brands as media moguls: Beyond the book contract, with a rumored price tag of at least $20 million, the couple signed lucrative deals with Netflix and Spotify.
Their star power — and willingness to speak with unusual, unflattering candor about a subject often veiled in secrecy — was on display during a 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey, which drew more than 17 million viewers in the United States alone and included accusations that the royal family failed to support the couple amid tabloid attacks and made racist remarks when Meghan was pregnant, musing about how dark the baby’s skin would be.
Much has changed since.
After the death of Queen Elizabeth II last month, any attacks the memoir might make on members of the royal family, or the monarchy, could strike many readers as unseemly. Harry has gotten cold feet about the memoir’s contents at various points, book industry executives with knowledge of the process told The New York Times, and the project has been shrouded in rumors, delays and secrecy.
The memoir will be published at a delicate moment for the British monarchy and public, which is still adjusting to King Charles III and reeling from economic and political instability. Its release also thrusts Harry into an impossible situation. Damaging revelations could hurt the monarchy and his relationship with his family. But holding back could dampen sales, making it more difficult for his publisher to recoup its considerable costs — and could erode Harry’s self-made image as the rebellious, truth-telling prince.
“Is his goal to enhance his celebrity with a certain sector of the public, or is it to repair the rift with his family?” said literary agent Matt Latimer, co-founder of the Javelin agency, which represents politicians and public figures like James Comey, the former director of the FBI, and John Bolton, the former national security adviser. “Those are competing goals to some extent, and it’s hard to do both.”
Penguin Random House declined to comment. A representative for Harry and Meghan also declined to comment.
The memoir has been the subject of intense speculation in the publishing world and among royal watchers. British tabloids and publishing insiders have debated how candid Harry will be in revealing the causes of his caustic break with his family and how much damage he’ll be willing to inflict on the institution of the monarchy. In the wake of the queen’s death, some political commentators have questioned the value of the monarchy, and new revelations from Harry could fuel the public’s skepticism of the institution and its sprawling cast of courtiers.
“Don’t forget, the British royal family is there by consent; they need to earn and keep the respect of the British public,” said Valentine Low, a journalist and the author of “Courtiers: Intrigue, Ambition and the Power Players Behind the House of Windsor.” “If that is ever damaged in a fundamental and permanent way, that could be very serious.”
When the deal was first announced in the summer of 2021, Penguin Random House described the book as “an intimate and heartfelt” memoir from Harry that would provide “the definitive account of the experiences, adventures, losses and life lessons that have helped shape him,” including his childhood and his coming-of-age as a royal, his time in the military, his marriage to Meghan and his experiences with fatherhood.
“I’m writing this not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become,” Harry said in a statement released by his publisher at the time, adding that he was aiming to produce a “firsthand account of my life that’s accurate and wholly truthful.”
“I’ve worn many hats over the years, both literally and figuratively, and my hope is that in telling my story — the highs and lows, the mistakes, the lessons learned — I can help show that no matter where we come from, we have more in common than we think,” he wrote.
Despite Harry’s attempt to present his memoir as a high-minded endeavor, the announcement sparked a wave of giddy guesswork among royal experts about how much he would dish.
A recent article in the British paper The Daily Mail, which predicted that the memoir would deliver “bombshell after bombshell,” contained thinly sourced chatter about the anxiety that the prospect of a tell-all is supposedly causing in the royal family: “Buckingham Palace is in a state of high alarm, with courtiers said to be asking themselves what, if anything, can be done to stop its publication.”
It’s unclear, though, how much further Harry will go.
In media interviews, Harry and Meghan have described the psychological toll of the harsh and unrelenting tabloid coverage, of the lack of support they felt from the royal family, and of the racism they said was directed at Meghan, who revealed that she at one point felt suicidal. But the couple have not disclosed, for example, who in the royal family speculated about the skin tone of their baby.
Harry’s complaints about his family extend back to his childhood: In a podcast interview with actor Dax Shepard, Harry described the “genetic pain and suffering” of being raised in the royal family and compared growing up as a royal as “a mix between ‘The Truman Show’ and living in a zoo.”
The couple’s candid confessions won over a swath of the American public, but their publicity strategy has been less well received in the United Kingdom, where they have been vilified in the press as ungracious and castigated for presenting themselves as victims.
Harry and Meghan’s strained relations with his family and their harsh treatment by the British tabloid press were on full display this fall, as their presence at the queen’s funeral sparked a fresh round of criticism that they were there to seek attention.
Rumors began swirling in the tabloids and in the publishing world that Harry would tone down or shy away from some of the more damning material about his family out of respect for the queen, though as is often the case, much of the speculation was delivered through anonymous sources, and Harry and his publisher have not commented publicly. Some royal experts warned that it would be scandalous for Harry to deliver another public blow to his family so soon after the queen’s death. “If it had anything sensational it would be tasteless,” royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams told The Daily Mail last month.
The memoir will be published by Random House in the United States and Transworld, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, in the United Kingdom, according to the original announcement from Harry’s publisher. Penguin Random House did not disclose financial terms but noted that Harry will be donating his profits to charity. It was unclear if “proceeds” referred to his sizable advance, or to potential royalties he would earn if the books sell well enough to earn out that advance.
The memoir drew interest from several major publishers. The project was offered as part a multi-book deal, with flexibility as to the number and type of books Harry and Meghan could produce, according to people with knowledge of the acquisition process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because such negotiations are private. The process began even before the couple’s interview with Oprah, when the memoir’s incendiary potential became widely known.
Penguin Random House has invested heavily in books by public figures and politicians, with widely varying results, underlining the risky nature of big bets in the publishing world. The company signed a $65 million deal for memoirs by Barack and Michelle Obama, and Michelle Obama’s book became one of the bestselling books of all time, with more than 17 million copies sold worldwide. Other big-ticket deals, however, have been spectacular failures, like Andrew Cuomo’s $5.1 million deal for “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The book sold modestly and was a source of endless headaches for the company when it prompted a state ethics investigation.
Penguin Random House is somewhat protected in its deal with Harry because the risk is spread among multiple books, and any losses would be distributed across several years.
But the company is under some pressure. The Biden administration sued to stop its bid to buy a rival publisher, Simon & Schuster, and if the deal doesn’t go through, Penguin Random House would have to pay about $200 million to the company that owns Simon & Schuster. Penguin Random House is also facing a difficult economic climate, with supply chain pressures and inflation. Harry’s book could have been a boost to its holiday sales — if it had been published as planned.
Harry is working with acclaimed ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer, who won accolades for his work on the autobiography of tennis player Andre Agassi, and is known for probing the tensions inherent in father-son relationships.
Some royal observers argue that regardless of what the memoir says, the monarchy has weathered scandal after scandal, and it would likely do so again.
“Yes, this is arriving at a delicate moment of transition, yes, people are nervous, yes, it could damage the monarchy,” said Low, the author of “Courtiers.” “In the long run, unless Harry has something astonishing to say, they’ll ride it out,” he continued. “But let’s see what Harry has to say.”
(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)