The publication of David Blunkett’s diaries is likely to yield great disappointment for his publishers, Hodder. The reason why this book will rise quickly to that ever growing ‘remainder heaven’ in the sky is that we all believe we know quite enough about David Blunkett already. The Daily Mail serialization will undoubtedly strip out the most juicy bits from the book, leaving the reader paying £25 to wade through the minutiae of Home Office meetings.
So why do politicians bother writing their memoirs or publishing their diaries? They will tell you that they want to put it all on the record for historical posterity. Naturally the hefty cheque dangled in front of them by a big publisher has nothing to do with it! But the big cheques are offered to very few and it is rarer and rarer for a politician to command a big five figure advance on royalties, let alone a six figure sum.
Margaret Thatcher received £3 million for her memoirs, John Major £1 million, Robin Cook £350,000 and Norman Fowler? Well, let’s just say it was a few thousand. Very few. Nowadays the smaller publishers, who several years ago would have signed up a backbench MP’s memoirs, have been gobbled up by the bigger publishing conglomerates who are only interested in publishing books which will sell a minimum of five or ten thousand copies in hardback. Very few political memoirs achieve those kind of sales, so fewer and fewer political memoirs are coming onto the market. No doubt that comes as a relief to some, but it’s a sad state of affairs that when more and more books are being published, fewer and fewer are on politics and current affairs. Publishers like to hide behind the argument that no one wants to read them. The truth is somewhat more prosaic. Publishers don’t know how to market them properly.
A best selling political memoir or diary needs a juicy story or a killer fact. If it doesn’t have either of those the publishers aren’t interested. Consequently there is great pressure on the author to ‘sex up’ the memoir.
In many ways, political diaries by second rate politicians, who never quite made it to the top, are often more interesting than the blockbusters. Bill Clinton’s memoirs may have been several inches thick, but they were of more use as a doorstop than to read. But Gyles Brandreth’s diaries remain the best record of the Major government, warts and all. Indeed, some would say Brandreth provides a better record of the Major Government that John Major himself.
You can’t just judge a book by the number of copies sold. In fact some of the best political memoirs have sold fewer than 1,000 copies. I know, I’ve published several of them!
The current government is doing its best to stop civil servants publishing their memoirs, arguing that if it is thought they are keeping a diary, Ministers won’t be open with them. However, they argue that there is nothing wrong with MPs and Ministers writing autobiographies. The double standards are appalling. Open government should mean just that. Civil servants should be free to publish their own recollections and if Ministers don’t like what they say, they can feel free to hit back.
The concept of ‘historical record’ obviously means different things to different people. A true historical record is a mixture of diaries, memoirs, biographies, journalistic books and academic histories. Only when you have read a mix of these five books can you gain a truly accurate impression of what really happened.
There was a time when a politician’s autobiography was considered to be part of their pension plan. It is still the case, but for a much smaller group of politicians. It’s not even the publisher who provides most of the money nowadays – it’s the newspaper serialization. The Daily Mail is rumoured to have paid a quarter of a million pounds for Blunkett’s diaries. If the book sells 5,000 copies I will be amazed – which means a mere £10,000 in royalties for Mr Blunkett. My heart could almost bleed.
The next ‘big’ political book will be Alastair Campbell’s diaries. The old Spinmeister has been busy scribbling away for ten years but has promised not to publish the book while Tony Blair remains Prime Minister. But with every passing day, the commercial value of his book is plummeting. Yesterday he revealed he had suffered from depression during his period as Blair’s Director of Communications. That revelation alone will have cost him a good few thousand pounds off the advance. If Alastair Campbell was interested in maximizing income from his diaries he would have auctioned the publishing rights the day after his resignation. I have little doubt he would have attracted bids of two or three million pounds. I suspect the value has now reduced to less than £1 million. One’s heart almost bleeds. Almost.
There are very few frontline politicians nowadays whose memoirs would sell more than a couple of thousand copies. Imagine for example Stephen Byers: The Railtrack Years, or Patricia Hewitt: The Nation’s Nanny. I don’t think they would trouble the tills at the nation’s bookshops. But if we are to gain a true picture of the New Labour Government Byers and Hewitt should indeed be encouraged to put pen to paper. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence…