We may have a special relationship with the United States but our bookbuying habits remain a little different. Since the start of the so-called War on Terror political book publishing in the United States has seen something of a resurgence, with sales up 30% year on year. In Britain sales are at best static. One of the reasons is the growth of the political polemic in the United States. The popularity of opinionated syndicated columnists like Ann Coulter and her ilk has not been replicated in this country. The best we can produce is Peter Hitchens. Brits like to read a balanced book rather than a partisan tirade which merely serves to reinforce one’s own prejudices. Suffice to say that Al Franken’s Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot (Penguin, August) is not a title which will recommend itself to the more discerning bookbuyers of Tunbridge Wells.
So with that in mind it is not surprising that sales of book about Iraq have been disappointing in the last year. Rageh Omar received a reported £800,000 advance from Penguin, yet his Iraq memoirs sold a mere 6,000 copies. So much for the Scud Stud. John Simpson’s Wars Against Saddam has been a moderate success but not on the scale of his previous books. John Kampfner’s Blair’s Wars threatens to do better in paperback than it did in hardback but all in all few publishers have made much out of Mr Blair’s foreign escapades.
So what of the autumn season? Can those of us who make our living out of selling political titles think wistfully of a feather bedded retirement? Hardly. Well, at least not until Alastair Campbell publishes his diaries…
For the third year in a row there is no sign of a real political blockbuster for the autumn party conference season. We hear rumours of Clare Short putting pen to paper but I have my doubts as to whether she has retained enough credibility to trouble the bestseller charts.
I B Tauris have an intriguing book out in August called Off Whitehall: Working with Blair (I B Tauris, August) by Derek Scott. Few outside the Westminster village will have heard of Mr Scott, but he is the first of Tony Blair’s Downing Street advisers to put pen to paper and for that reason alone it is a book which will gain attention. Scott is interesting also because he was one of the few Eurosceptics at the heart of New Labour.
On the policy front the prolific transport specialist Christian Wolmar is updating his seminal work on rail privatisation Broken Rails (Aurum, August) and James Bartholomew launches a tirade against the welfare state in his powerful polemic, The Welfare State We’re In (Politico’s, September). This has the potential to be one of the autumn’s surprise bestsellers. It’s not fashionable to argue against the Welfare State and he will no doubt have the wrath of Polly Toynbee thrown at him from a great height. Always judge an author by his enemies
We can expect to see some rushed books on the pros and cons of the European Constitution and there are some quite interesting new autumn titles relating to European politics including Berlusconi’s Shadow (Penguin, August).
As a Gordon Brown premiership creeps ever nearer the paperback of William Keegan’s The Prudence of Mr Gordon Brown (Wiley, August) serves as a mere precursor to the major biography which Julia Langdon is writing for publication in 2005. Another possible leadership contender should Mr Tony decide to move on to other things is Robin Cook, whose diaries Point of Departure (Simon & Schuster, August) are a surprisingly good read. Another book which will make uncomfortable reading in Number Ten is The Blairs & Their Court (Aurum, October) by the Guardian’s David Hencke and Attlee’s biographer Francis Beckett. Tony Benn is writing what I presume is the first instalment of his autobiography, Dare to be a Daniel (Random House, October) which covers his early years. His sellout one man tour shows how popular he remains.
On the Conservative side John Redwood looks at thirty years of Tory civil war in Singing the Blues (Politico’s, October). No Christmas card from Michael Howard for him then. Antony Seldon follows up his biography of Blair with a glossy coffee table book on the history of the Conservative Party (Sutton, September), while John Campbell’s second volume of his majesterial biography of Margaret Thatcher emerges in paperback in September (Random House, September). One which I am personally looking forward to is Lewis Baston’s long awaited biography of that nearly man of Tory politics, Reggie Maudling. Maudling’s own memoirs were distinctly unforgettable but it is easy to forget the key role he played in Tory politics for 15 years from the early 1960s.
Counterfactual history is a genre much sniffed at by academics, but the success of Andrew Robert’s slim tome What Might Have Been earlier this year leads me to think that the paperback of my own Prime Minister Portillo & Other Things That Never Happened (Politico’s, September) might be even more successful than the hardback. The autumn’s main historical biography looks set to be William Hague’s mammoth tome on William Pitt the Younger (HarperCollins, September). He’s been working on it since he resigned as Tory leader in 2001 and by all accounts it’s a worthy first book. HarperCollins have paid a lot of money for it so it needs to be a success. Granta have a possible bestseller on their hands with Jon Heacham’s story of the friendship between Roosevelt and Chuerchill, Franklin & Winston (Granta, October)
Now that Politico’s exists only in cyberspace the question I’m often asked is how much do I miss being in the Artillery Row shop? Having transferred the business to an online and mail order business a few months ago I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would. I miss the banter and gossip with customers but I don’t miss all the hassles that goes with running a shop in central London. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. Now I know I did.
Iain Dale is Managing Director of Politicos.co.uk