One of the biggest books of the year was written on spec.
Instead of signing a contract and getting an advance beforehand, Bruce Springsteenworked on the manuscript of his autobiography “Born to Run” for seven years—by himself—before it was shown to a publisher. The book, which has been held tightly under wraps, will debut in a coordinated, global release on Sept. 27. In all, it is set to be published in 22 countries.
The project began when Mr. Springsteenpenned a first-person account for his website describing his experience on stage at the 2009 Super Bowl. He wrote the piece in stream-of-consciousness style, sprinkled with all-caps. Mr. Springsteen, who is often described as a control freak, wrote that he’d been worried that he would feel “‘out’ of myself and not in the moment.”
“My old friend Peter Wolf once said, ‘the strangest thing you can do on stage is think about what you’re doing,’ ” Mr. Springsteen wrote. “It’s an existential problem. Unfortunately, right in my wheelhouse....When that happens, I do anything to break it. Tear up the set list, call an audible, make a mistake, anything to get ‘IN.’ That’s what you get paid for, TO BE HERE NOW!”
After posting his account, Mr. Springsteen quietly kept going. “I felt like I found a good voice to write in,” he recalled in a video released earlier this month by his publisher. “I said, maybe I’ll try to write a little more and see where it takes me.”
In 2014, Simon & Schuster published Mr. Springsteen’s “Outlaw Pete,” an illustrated book for adults based on his song about a bank-robbing baby. The book sold modestly—about 12,000 print copies, according to Nielsen BookScan—but the experience was apparently positive for Mr. Springsteen; less than two years later, his legal representatives, Allen Grubman and Jonathan Ehrlich, brought the manuscript exclusively to Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp.
“This is the book we’ve been hoping for,” Mr. Karp said in a February news release announcing the book. Mr. Karp declined an interview request, as did Mr. Springsteen’s attorneys.
It’s rare for a celebrity to write an autobiography on spec, Simon & Schuster spokesmanCary Goldstein said: “I can’t think of anyone of Bruce’s stature who has done it this way.”
It set a tone of secrecy for the enterprise. From the moment Mr. Karp acquired world-wide rights to the book, knowledge of the deal was kept to a tight but gradually widening circle.
“It was very hush-hush,” said Sophia Jimenez, who at the time worked as an assistant editor at Simon & Schuster. Like many of her colleagues, she was in the dark about the Springsteen book until the day it was announced publicly.
While news of the book was still closely guarded, Marie Florio, the company’s director of subsidiary rights, began approaching pre-selected foreign publishers, rather than holding auctions. She invited each to make an offer. At least one European publisher made an offer on the book sight-unseen.
“In France, Bruce Springsteen is more than a music legend,” Anne Michel, foreign department director of the French publisher Éditions Albin Michel, said in a news release when the book was announced on Feb. 11. “He has become, over time, the incarnation of a certain idea of America.”
Publishers then commissioned quick-turn-around translations. Mr. Springsteen revised the manuscript between concerts on tour this summer, as translators across Europe worked simultaneously to update their versions with his latest changes.
“It was more or less a real-time operation,” said Eduard Richter, senior publisher at Spectrum in the Netherlands, who supervised the process there.
“He’s very open and the style of writing is very personal,” Mr. Richter said. “It’s even poetic, in a way. You sometimes hear his songs. That will attract hard-core Bruce Springsteen fans but also a large fan base who like Bruce Springsteen or have memories of the rock ‘n’ roll era.”
In “Born to Run,” Mr. Springsteen recounts his New Jersey childhood, his early days as a bar-band king in Asbury Park, and the rise of the E Street Band. He also discusses his bouts of depression, according to an interview with Vanity Fair.
Mr. Springsteen said he rewrote the 500-page memoir two or three times. “Writing prose has its own set of rules,” he said in a video released this week on his Facebook page. “You’ve got to create the music without the music. You’ve got to find the music in the way that the story moves and the rhythms shift and your voice shifts. You’ve got to create momentum purely on the page.” Simon & Schuster’s Mr. Goldstein says no ghostwriter was involved.
The book is under a strict embargo until the publication date. Security measures have included non-disclosure agreements; traceable, password-protected manuscripts; and closed-circuit television monitoring of books on shrink-wrapped pallets, publishers and booksellers said. Several European publishers told The Wall Street Journal they were not authorized to speak to journalists about the book before publication. Simon & Schuster declined to comment on the logistics of the book’s release or the size of its initial print run.
Two buyers at Barnes & Noble read partial manuscripts after signing non-disclosure agreements. Mary Amicucci, Barnes & Noble’s chief merchandising officer, said the retailer has taken “an aggressive position” on the book and plans to display it in stores alongside CD and vinyl copies of “Chapter and Verse,” a retrospective companion album that Mr. Springsteen is releasing on Sept. 23 with five previously unreleased tracks.
Mr. Springsteen’s broad fan base, his long career and his political activity (he campaigned for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012), make his memoir a good bet, booksellers and publishers said.
Mr. Springsteen and the E Street Band are neck-and-neck with Beyoncé to score the year’s top-earning international tour. The tour wraps up this month after 75 shows across the U.S. and Europe, just in time for Mr. Springsteen’s book appearances to begin on Sept. 27 at Barnes & Noble in Freehold, N.J., his hometown.
Mr. Springsteen has so far announced nine book-tour events in September and October, including a conversation on stage with David Remnick at the New Yorker Festival on Oct. 7, as well as library and bookstore appearances in Philadelphia, Cambridge, Mass., Portland, Ore., Seattle and Los Angeles. He hasn’t announced any public appearances in November or December. In January, he and the E Street Band will hit the road again in Australia and New Zealand.
Publishers and retailers, including Amazon and U.K. giant Waterstones, compared the autobiography’s prospects to Keith Richards’s “Life,” which has sold 800,000 print copies in the U.S. alone, according to Nielsen BookScan.
“He’s someone that people respect, and that’s why he’ll sell,” James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, said of Mr. Springsteen. “There is an intellectual underpinning which makes him enormously more interesting than another rock star.”
How long the book’s sales continue will depend on how well it’s written, Mr. Daunt said.
—Neil Shah contributed reporting for this article.