Prince's Book Agent Reveals an Unconventional Path to ‘Beautiful Ones’

Kevin Mazur/WireImage
Prince onstage at Madison Sqaure Garden in 2011.

ICM Partners' literary doyenne Esther  Newberg shepherded the rock legend’s book to its posthumous publication: "He just didn't want others writing any more about him. He wanted to set the story straight."

On Oct. 29, Spiegel & Grau published The Beautiful Ones, an unconventional memoir from the late Prince. The woman who helped convince the music legend to lift the veil on his mystique-filled career — and kept the project moving after his death in 2016 at 57 (the book was still in the early stages at the time) — is, no surprise, Esther Newberg. The 77-year-old co-head of ICM Partners' publishing department is one of the most influential forces in the literary world, landing best-selling titles for Bob Iger, Tom Hanks and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the past three years alone. But Prince's book presented unique challenges; Newberg shared with THR its atypical journey.

How did you come to meet Prince?

Through one of his lawyers, and then I flew out to Minnesota with my colleague Dan Kirschen. At one point, in that first meeting, Prince said to me, "Who's your favorite?" And I just sort of looked down, and replied, "Bruce Springsteen." And he says, "So you brought your own music guy who likes me?" (Laughs.) He was adorable.

Who else was there?

I brought editors from three different houses — which you never do. But I knew that he would be bored with meeting after meeting after meeting. There they all were, trying to curry his favor. He went with [an] editor [who] had done Jay-Z's book; that was a huge thing for Prince.

How did he envision the text?

He showed us a chart of his family, going back generations, which was astonishing. He wanted to start the book with his mother. He almost remembered her from the crib. He had quite a memory. He wanted to talk about why he stayed in Minnesota. He just didn't want others writing any more about him. He wanted to set the story straight.

How much was still to be done after he died?

Oh, God. He had maybe 50 handwritten pages done, and those are actually in the book. There are photos of his handwriting. “You” is the letter U, and “are” is the letter R. But then Dan Piepenbring, who traveled with Prince to Australia for one of his last concerts and met with him other times, went out to Paisley Park and just went through everything that you can imagine. He had access to it all.

And the intent, before Prince's death, was that Dan would collaborate along the way.

Dan had to write a note explaining why he was a Prince fan, and Prince was apparently very impressed with what he had to say. They really connected. 

How does Prince compare to other luminaries you've worked with?

How do you compare Prince or Ruth Bader Ginsburg to anyone? I just did the Bob Iger book. There's an amazingly accessible guy. He calls himself, doesn't use staff. Then there's Tom Hanks, who decides to write a short story that we got into the New Yorker and then he says yes to a whole collection. That's the very definition of a Renaissance Man — one who came to me through Steve Martin, speaking of Renaissance Men. I just prefer people who do the work themselves, not have other people do it for them.

Prince's book deal was famously wild.

He wanted the ability to buy the book back, in case he didn't want to release it — or even after the book was published. He kept calling, "I want this in the contract. I don't want that in the contract. And I'm going to give you all a concert if you can make it all happen." Random House made sure to say that this contract was one of a kind and not to come back with someone else and say, "but we got it in that contract."

How was the concert?

He flew from Minneapolis and performed at a club in Tribeca. Onstage, he thanked [co-author] Dan, his publisher and me. One of my friends said, "Seriously, did you ever think you'd be in your 70s and an iconic rock star would thank you from the stage?"

Did you ever think the project would fall apart?

I’ve been waiting for this publication day, thinking it wouldn’t happen. Maybe if Prince had lived, there wouldn’t have been a book. I think he would have loved it, but I don’t know. Now they’re printing 300,000 copies — which is a lot, for a dead musician, even Prince. 

How do you think he would have promoted the book?

He wanted to make sure that when there was a book, he could bring it out in a very different way — maybe something at Radio City or Madison Square Garden. He certainly wasn't going to go on morning shows. 

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story appears in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.