Taking a leaf from Sarkozy's book

Why are British publishers so sure that political books won't sell?

The news that Nicolas Sarkozy's autobiography has sold 275,000 copies in France within a month ought to send British publishers reaching for their chequebooks. But it won't.

British publishers believe that politics is the new theology - no one wants to read about it. The consequence is that fewer and fewer political biographies and autobiographies are being published because of the vicious publishing circle in which publishers and booksellers convince each other that there just isn't a market for political books. It's a self-perpetuating myth, because if people aren't given the chance to buy the books, they won't. It really is as simple as that.

Since the late 1990s there have been very few political books which have troubled the bestseller charts. That may be a sign of the times, or an indication that publishers don't market them properly.

A few months ago I put together a proposal to write a biography of David Cameron and started hawking it round various publishers. The response illustrated just how difficult it is to get a mainstream political book published in this country. I deliberately set out to market it as a "pseudo-celebrity biography" aimed at general readers as well as the political market, to make it more appealing.

The general view among the publishers I approached was that it wouldn't sell because no one's interested in politicians. Excuse me? One publisher even said: "Why would anyone want to read a book about a politician - they can find it all on the internet or in magazines." What a great argument for all publishers just shutting up shop and closing down their businesses!

I argued that it was important to publish the book quickly to catch the wave of Cameron-mania. He was the new kid on the block. He had that certain indefinable stardust quality. People felt he was interesting and wanted to know more. I was convinced that such a book would sell. In the end I gave up.

I use that story to illustrate that if you can't sell a biography of a party leader like David Cameron to a publisher there's little hope of selling one on second-rank political figures. Go into any second hand bookshop and you'll find copies of books on the likes of Gerald Nabarro, Dame Jill Knight and Norman Fowler. In twenty years time will those same shelves be graced by the memoirs of Sir Nicholas Winterton, Michael Meacher or Jenny Tonge? No. Because unless they pay to have them self-published, no mainstream publisher would have the bottle to take them on.

This is partly due to the consolidation of the British publishing industry. Most of the smaller publishers who used to publish political biography have been bought up by the larger conglomerates like Random House, Penguin and HarperCollins. If they don't think a book will sell at least 5,000 copies in hardback they are unlikely to read past the first page of an author's proposal.

In my time I have published biographies and autobiographies of or by people such as Bill Rodgers, John Nott, Ann Widdecombe, William Hague and Jeremy Thorpe. As a small publisher I knew they were financially viable even with comparatively low sales. But those days are gone. At least, I think they are.

It may well be that the internet re-opens the market for genres like political biography. Lulu.com has revolutionised self publishing and who knows what other publishing innovations are around the corner. It's even conceivable that a book could be published chapter by chapter on a blog. Now there's a thought. Excuse me for a minute while I register "www.blogpublishing.com"...