Just hours after Whitney Houston died in a hotel room in Beverly Hills, self-published e-books documenting her life and death began popping up on Amazon's Kindle Store.
Within a few days more than a dozen new e-books about the singer were for sale, from biographies and fan tributes to a book of poems and an analysis of her handwriting.
Needless to say, some of these books have evidently been desperately cobbled together (presumably with a liberal use of the copy and paste keys and Wikipedia) with hardly enough time for even a spell check, but they demonstrate the potential of the e-book to respond to events sooner than the regular print publishing industry can.
Compare the rush to publication of these e-books with the conventional printed biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson that was released in October last year. Isaacson had spent two years working on it and had interviewed more than a hundred people, including extensive conversations with Jobs.
As cancer tightened its grip on the Apple entrepreneur, US publisher Simon & Schuster moved the book's release date forward twice. (The original publication date was March this year.) It was released on October 24 last year, 19 days after Jobs' death, as both a printed book and e-book. That's about as responsive as conventional book publishing can get - but not quickly enough for the book to include details of Jobs' death.
American publisher John Blake has announced it will release an updated version of a 2009 biography of Houston on February 23, as a paperback and e-book. That's only 12 days after her death, beating even the Jobs turnaround. The company says it's already received 50,000 pre-orders.
It's likely that the more considered of the Whitney Houston e-books were mostly written while she was alive, with details of her death added at the last minute. That would make it the book-publishing equivalent to the newspaper obituary that's written in advance, ready to be sent to print upon the death of the subject.
Occasionally, media outlets are caught out when their pre-prepared obituaries slip into publication ahead of time. Bloomberg was embarrassed when it published an obituary of Jobs - containing insert-here spaces for his age and cause of death - in August 2008, three years before he died. The Queen Mother was also knocked off in the Australian media nine years before her death. (It happens so often that there's an entertaining list of premature obituaries on Wikipedia.)
These obituaries are usually only written about elderly or ill people, or those with perilous jobs or lifestyles, but with the Houston e-books it's possible that some morbidly prophetic entrepreneurs had speculated that Houston's drug use and erratic behaviour would end tragically and saw the potential to cash in.
The snuff e-book could become a whole new genre of publishing. Perhaps it already is. Perhaps there are hundreds of amateur celebrity biographies already written, just waiting for that last page to be added.
The most popular of the Houston e-books is a The Life and Death of Whitney Houston: Inside Her Final Days (US$2.99) by American entertainment broadcaster Michael Essany. As I write this it is sitting at 3352 in the overall Kindle chart and number seven on the entertainment biographies chart and moving up by the hour. (As a comparison, The Whitney Houston Handwriting Report is at number 134,164.)
It looks as if Essany is a pioneer of the snuff e-book. He released The Life & Death Of Steve Jobs: "One More Thing..." on October 7 - two days after Jobs' death. Wonder who else he's got on his hard drive, just waiting to knock off.