Amongst the flurry of tributes that followed the death of Apple godhead Steve Jobs last Wednesday, one emerged of more questionable taste than most (most, not all – although at least they took the time to acknowledge they ‘have a great respect for everything he did’). Less than two days after word of Jobs’ passing got out, Simon & Schuster announced it was bringing forward the publication date of Walter Isaacson’s official Jobs biography.
Originally slated for late November, the book will now be released on October 24th, less than three weeks after its subject’s death. The film rights have already been acquired by Sony (who will presumably request the addition of characters to say things like ‘yeah, the iMac’s pretty and all, but it’s no VAIO, right guys?’). As I write this, Jobs has been dead five days. All of this business was taken care of three days ago.
The impulse to profit from celebrity death is obvious: people are ghouls, plain and simple. Look at Michael Jackson. Look at Amy Winehouse. Then look at the most prominent displays in HMV the next time you go in following the death of a widely beloved musician, actor, author. In July 2009, Jackson had six singles in the top 40, a number one album and a further 37 singles in the top 200. The week before his death, he had one album at 121.
The week after Winehouse died at 27, Back To Black – an album you thought literally everyone in the country already owned by law – somehow found itself back at number one, where it stayed for three weeks, and subsequently became the UK’s biggest selling album of the 21st century. Death sells. It doesn’t really make any sense – ‘this person who relied on my buying their product to earn a living has died! I didn’t buy their product whilst they were alive! I must buy it to show my respect now that they can in no way profit from it!’ – but then, people on the whole largely don’t really make any sense.
So there is obviously money to be made. Not even Jobs’ formidable talent for orchestrating hype around his product launches ever captured the zeitgeist as much as his death has. But here’s the thing: this book was already coming out before the end of the year. Even if it had kept its original late-November date, the inevitable coda might seem a little hasty and tacked-on given the less than two-month turnaround between real-world event and its depiction in print, especially in comparison to the two years of work, encompassing 40 interviews with Jobs, that has brought it to this point. Worse, it might bring to mind the probability that this was an ending Isaacson had already written for just such an eventuality.
Simon & Schuster have been keen so far to emphasise that this is a book that has been sanctioned by Apple, with everything that connotes: taste, class, quality. If Jobs is as important a figure to contemporary life as the book seems keen to position him, then it seems, frankly, silly to think that people will have forgotten about him and be less inclined to read about him in a month’s time. Yes, there’s money to be made, and your chosen deity knows that the publishing industry needs it now more than ever. But there’s also a time to show some restraint, and maybe hold off on announcing your short-term projections. Like after the funeral.