Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is There Life in the Political Memoir?

I make no bones about it. I love political memoirs and biographies. OK, I may read the occasional football biog, but political autobiographies and biographies are what I read most. I’m in the middle of Peter Mandelson at the moment. Hmmm. Perhaps I should rephrase that. However, the genre of political biography has been on the decline for some time. This is because the major publishers have caught massive financial colds in publishing them. A few years ago Bloomsbury paid a huge amount of money for David Blunkett’s diaries. They clearly thought he would be the next Alan Clark. Boy were they wrong. Blunkett rather cannily held onto serialisation rights, which fetched a six figure sum. He was rumoured to have made £400,000 from the book, and the publisher? They paid a quarter of a million pounds and sold, er, 4,000 copies in hardback. I don’t think it ever made it into paperback. Other publishers duly took note.

There was a time when every two bit backbencher would be able to get their memoirs published. No longer. I reckon there will be very few takers for the memoirs of most ex Labour cabinet ministers like Geoff Hoon, Jacqui Smith or John Denham. I may be wrong, but I doubt it. Even smaller publishers would blanche at taking them on. This is a shame because no matter what you think, they all have an interesting story to tell. But none of them would sell more than a couple of thousand copies. Is it worth the bother?

I can see the day when such politicians might well get their memoirs published but only as an e-book. The biggest cost of any book is the print cost. This is usually well over 50% of the cost – sometimes up to 80%. If that cost can be taken out of the equation then suddenly a book may become viable. What no publisher has yet worked out is how to price e-books. I suspect there is a £10 price barrier, although it could be as low as £5. Biteback is about to make its entire catalogue available as e-books. But even now, we’re not sure how to price them. But if publishers can get the pricing right for e-books it could mean that the political biography and memoir genre gets a new lease of life. Let’s hope so.

24 comments:

Mr Eugenides said...

Well, you could probably make a few quid off Jacqui Smith's memoirs, if you serialised them on pay-per-view.

George said...

Iain, its not so much the cost, it's the low volume sales which is the bugbear.
Frankly, who wants to read a load of lies and self preening tenditious tosh and pay £20 for the dubious pleasure of being bored titless.
Add to that, the horror of putting yet more money into the pockets of a mendacious corrupt tosser and you get the reason for low sales.
The recent bunch of the last 20/30 years have nothing to offer, apart from taking the art of spinning to its natural climax, of claiming and demanding sainthood.

A pox and plague on the lot of 'em.

Demetrius said...

The great obstacle to politicians publishing free on the web is that they would have to spend their own money on all those researchers and ghost writer.

Owen said...

I am looking at buying a kindle for the sole purpose of reading biographies and diaries as it will make it possible to read a 600 page book with one hand standing on the tube.
The only thing that has stopped me is new books not always coming out in ebook (eg the bio of Roald Dahl and Chris Mullin's diaries).
On price, I am willing to pay the same as a paperback - no more.

Shibley Rahman said...

Good analysis. I suppose there are some issues that emerge:

1. Whether the person is genuinely notable. In the rest of the book market. Some people who've done very little in their lives objectively have their memoirs published, but they are successful; in other words people want to read them as they are hugely popular, and they make considerable amounts of money for the author and the publishers. I think Jacqui Smith's one would be interesting in that I wonder why on earth Labour pursued such a potty policy in ID cards. I would like her to justify it, and to understand why people such as David Miliband voted for it. What is in the 'public interest' may not necessarily a big market winner though. Book publishers have to justify in their business case the enormous amount of money they invest in the books, e.g. publication, marketing, promotion.

2. Whether some people should publish so soon out of government. People like him who have been through academic law courses will be aware of the issues surrounding the publication of the Richard Crossman diaries, and the implications for collective responsibilty etc.

I particularly enjoyed your quip about the Mandelson memoir on the BBC's 'Any Questions' last Friday, by the way. Hoenst, but probably in many people's views, entirely correct.

Good blog as usual.

Dr Shibley Rahman
Primrose Hill, London
(@RecoveryShibs)

Wrinkled Weasel said...

E publishing is on the verge of a Betamax fiasco. The best open source format is ePub but, guess what, Kindle won't read it. Instead, Amazon want to tie you into their catalogue, just as Apple did with Itunes.

Greed is what did for mp3 and greed will scupper e publishing if they don't get real and put a realistic price on DRM free text.

It's sheer cheek to charge ten quid for something that costs nothing to actually make. Not only that, there are plenty, in fact thousands of hooky mp3 sites that will give you what you want for nothing, and hundreds of thousands of ePub texts.

So, when it comes to pricing, be realistic. The reason political biograhphies don't sell is because all the juicy bits get serialised and quoted all over the place. You cannot have five bites of the cherry, as the Blunket case demonstrates.

And by the way, how come Biteback missed out on Chris Mullin, arguably the most informative book to come out of the New Labour debacle? Somebody wasn't keeping their eye on the ball.

The Grim Reaper said...

These books are generally very boring in the first place. We already know about Blair and Brown fighting during the Labour years. I'm not that interested in finding out more details. And anything juicy in the book goes into a newspaper serialisation anyway...

Minnie the Minx said...

I got the excellent new Chris Mullin, Decline and Fall, yesterday and I'm having trouble tearing myself away from it.

Michael Heaver said...

When I look at the politicians who I'd actually be interested in reading the memoirs of, they seem to be a dying breed. The likes of Cameron/Clegg/Milibnd are hardly the most interesting of characters.

akashic said...

I would advise you to start the price low, and slowly increase prices until you see a significant drop off in sales.

As ebooks are a new medium, the low price will also encourage people to try out a different way of reading.

If they are priced high, it's not worth trying it out, such as the ridiculously high priced Times pay-wall.

You're selling a whole new medium with ebooks, not just the content.

Gordon Brown said...

Jacqui Smith could release a video, *cough*, with her husband. Now I reckon that would sell well....

Bill Quango MP said...

You can always do a Waterstones and bundle them up 3 for 2.

Just £14.99 Buy Iain Duncan-Smith and Zac Goldsmith's memoirs and get Jacqui Smith's absolutely free!

Nigel said...

No more than £5.
At that price you might get a surprising number of takers.

The marginal cost of an e-book is precisely nil. I might risk a fiver on the memoirs of some second line politico - but no more than that.

Lauchlan McLean said...

I agree with George I would not wish to spend my time reading about lying,cheating,expense fiddling, discredited politicians.I would prefer to read real fiction, even by Dan Brown than the rubbish produced by the likes of Mandelson, Blunkett, and Mullin.

Simon McIntyre said...

Well if 50-80% of the cost of a book is in the printing then why not break the mould and price an e-book at 50-80% less. Unlike every other publisher who wants the same price for a physical book (with printing, binding and shipping costs).

south said...

Despite being a bit techie I'm not yet sold on ebooks. I can read a paper book again in 5, 10 or 20 years, I'm far from convinced that books I download to proprietary readers will be similarly long lived. It's not even clear if you really have 'bought' the ebook in the conventional sense.
Good luck, it will be interesting and it is the future.

Torontory said...

As a Kindle owner, ebooks are the only basis on which I would buy biographies of league 2 politicians; premier league I would always want in print if available.

On pricing, I reckon to pay the US$ equivalent of £5-10 for an ebook. Not sure that Hoon, Smith and Denham would make it into league 2 though!

OperaNut1972 said...

Most eBooks I buy are in the £5-7 price band. as the only costs are the storage and eCommerce charges from each transaction then I don't see why a new book which would have fetched £20 ish in hardback should still cost that! At the moment the eBook market is being held back by the cost of the books, not the equipment itself!

Unsworth said...

Only insofar as they are candid and accurate.

Chris Mullin seems to be selling - Alan Clark did, as did/does Channon, of course. I suppose Wedgwood Benn is OK-ish - slightly entertaining but his version of history is dubious. Very unsure about both Blair and Mandelson, and I doubt that Brown's book/novel will do more than make a token appearance. Thatcher and possibly Major were both reasonable bets, but who would read Kinnock or Charles Kennedy?

I suspect that those buying Mandelson are doing it solely because they enjoy the spectacle of Mandelson getting his own back on everyone he can. Now, is that actually likely to be a large audience?

As always the question for the purchaser is 'do I trust this author to tell anything like the truth?'. Well, most of NuLab have totally blown it, then.

John said...

Iain, why not post them on e-bay and invite bids? that will allow you to expose the product to a wide market and give you a sense of demand - by noting numbers of watchers and bidders - and value by reference ot actual bids.

Moriarty said...

"I'm in the middle of Peter Mandelson at the moment".

And you can type at the same time? You must be a contortionist.

The Grim Reaper said...

Gordon Brown (not THAT Gordon Brown, surely?) said "Jacqui Smith could release a video, *cough*, with her husband. Now I reckon that would sell well..."

That reminds me. Iain, did you try to get the rights to sell Gordon's book?

Stono said...

the blight of recent autobiographies is that they get written by people who have relatively little to say or nothing actually new to add to what is already public domain knowledge.

that assumes they are real autobiographies anyway, as we know most arent, and actually quite alot of ghost writers arent terribly good at writing books, Im reading one know which feels almost schizophrenic as there are clear ghost written bits to fill in the gaps for what was obviously just a set of detail interviews, that occasionally get used as direct quotes

theres also a tendency to gloss over quite important aspects of the persons life, still havent quite forgiven John Major for the omission from his book, and these books are all about trust with the reader ultimately, if the reader cant trust a politician to write honestly about events, why should they believe any of whats written in the book.

Janramzon said...

Are you going to say anything on Guido's persistent determination to out William Hague? I think people - not least probably those directly concerned - really appreciated your empathetic takes on David Laws' and Crispin Blunt's situations. So why no comment on WH and his driver? Do you just think it's just tittle tattle, or do you know it isn't but don't care and think no-one else should?