New Labour, old habits

As the general election gathers pace, Iain Dale explains why readers are still political animals

Political bookbuyers have rarely had it so good - assuming, that is, they can find places to buy political books. Readers outside London are lucky if they can find a single shelf of political books in their local bookshop. "Oh, politics just doesn't sell," is the automatic response. "There's no demand." Perhaps that's why 20% of political books are now bought on the internet, and why my own shop, Politico's, is regularly able to sell upwards of 20% of a publisher's entire print run.

Even publishers have caught the "there's no demand" disease. Penguin, seen as one of Britain's top publishers of political books, apparently has only one on its lists this autumn. This sorry situation has come about as a result of the myriad of mergers and acquisitions in British publishing over the last five years. Even Victor Gollancz, once well known for its political tomes, doesn't publish political books any more. As commissioning editors become part of the corporate psyche, they are less willing to take risks with new authors for fear of commissioning a dud. The bigger the company, the fewer risks will be taken.

The only positive side to this is that it leaves the field wide open for small, independent publishers to fill the gap. It's just a shame that getting bookshops to stock political books - let alone political books from a small publisher - is rather like trying to persuade William Hague to jump off a bandwagon. Even left-of-centre publishers such as the excellent Lawrence & Wishart and the innovative Verso find it difficult to enthuse booksellers in the big chains.

Having said all that, I remain optimistic. And why wouldn't I be? Just before the last election we formed Politico's, a specialist political bookshop in Westminster that everyone thought would fail within six months. Four years later, not only has it established itself, but we also have a thriving publishing venture and one of the busiest and most profitable retail websites around.

Political bookbuyers are a demanding lot and their tastes constantly change. When we first opened, everyone wanted to know as much about New Labour as possible; any publisher who brought out a book with the words "new" and "Labour" in the title had a guaranteed success on their hands. Then books on the so-called "third way" became the latest fad. (Professor Giddens can thank my business for a large part of his annual royalty cheque.)

Today the appetite is for books that seek to explain what has gone wrong with New Labour. This trend started with Andrew Rawnsley's bestselling Servants of the People , still in our top 20 bestsellers eight months after publication. Rawnsley had the luck to have his book published at exactly the right time, and has promoted it relentlessly. The fact that it reads like a thriller certainly helped.

But what of the political biography? I seem to spend half my life defending this genre. Last year I published Jo-Anne Nadler's biography of William Hague. Nadler and her agent had been punting this book around publishers for a couple of years with no luck. "No interest in Tories" and "He's too young for a biography" were the usual responses from publishers whose love affair with New Labour knew no bounds. It really is incredible that mainstream publishers could not see the potential for selling this book among Tory supporters, let alone anyone else.

It is certainly true that political biographies tend to be reviewed by newspapers in disproportionate amounts to the quantity they sell. Last year we published Bill Rodgers's autobiography, Fourth Among Equals , in the knowledge that it was unlikely to trouble the bestseller charts but was a superbly written book. The reviewers agreed and, as with Gyles Brandreth's brilliant diaries Breaking the Code, it is selling through word-of-mouth recommendation.

The general election campaign has certainly enlivened people's interest in political books - even the party manifestos have been selling. So far Politico's has sold more than 11,000 copies, many through our website to people who say their local newsagent or bookshop won't stock them. Shame on them.

It is clear that, as in so many areas of modern retailing, independent booksellers must now specialise to survive and compete not only with the likes of Waterstone's, but also with the growing competition from internet booksellers. Niche marketing is nowadays the name of the game both for booksellers and smaller publishers.