You can imagine the buzz at Michael Palin's publisher when he decided to let them print the diaries he'd kept during the Monty Python era. Bingo! Everyone loves Michael Palin. His travel books always end up in the Christmas top five and this insider's view of the Python years is bound to be the Alan Bennett of 2006. So why isn't it selling?
To be fair the sales aren't bad by normal standards, but by Palin's this must be a huge disappointment. Why isn't the book in the top five? Perhaps the answer lies in Palin's almost official role as the nicest man in Britain. When I read someone's memoirs I want the sort of scurillous gossip that is almost libelous. Piers Morgan's entertaining Insider is a good example of this and although much of the material seems outrageous and highly suspect, I can only assume that the lack of libel actions means that a large part of it is true. Palin's diaries are far too generous, reasonable and nice to make compelling reading. In fairness I've only read a few entries, but if the book had grabbed me more I'd have read the whole thing by now.
Michael Palin isn't alone. Bill Bryson's memoir isn't setting the bestseller charts on fire, whilst the massively-hyped Billy Piper autobiography Growing Pains is being beaten hands down by Richard Dawkins' polemic against religion. Who says that we're dumbing down?
As far as fiction is concerned, fewer than 10% of my top 50 bestsellers are hardback fiction and the names are all familiar ones: Ben Elton, Andy McNab, Dick Francis and, of course, Terry Pratchett. Publishers paid a fortune in advances for Diane Setterfield and Michael Cox's debuts, but it looks as if it's going to be a long time before they get their money back unless Saints Richard and Judy intervene.
The sports table is also full of surprises. Wayne Rooney was paid a large sum of money for his book and whilst it's ticking along, the sales are nothing compared to Stephen Gerrard's autobiography.
So what is selling? At the moment the bestselling autobiography is Peter Kay's The Sound of Laughter, which is outselling everything else by a long chalk. Other bestsellers include Victoria Beckham's guide to fashion (no it isn't a humour title), Jeremy Clarkson's selected rants vol.2, a humorous book about Latin and, to the surprise of many, Pam Ayres' Surgically Enhanced.
I saw Pam when she first appeared on Opportunity Knocks, so I'm rooting for her.
The Peter Kay biography will be bought by many and read by few. That is the nature of Christmas bestsellers. A few years ago the bestselling book at Christmas was Shane Richie's autobiography. I'd overhear customers saying 'She likes 'im, don't she' and you could sense their relief that they were one present nearer the end of their Christmas shopping(incidentally, research has recently revealed that the average housewife spends 18 hours Christmas shopping!). When the Richie book came out in paperback in time for the summer reading season, we sold fewer than half a dozen. Why? Because no-one actually wanted to read it.
Most years there is one book that takes everyone by surprise. Remember the Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, Magic Eye or Eats Shoots and Leaves? This year's book would have been the saucy Janet and John stories from Terry Wogan's morning show, but sadly nobody seized the opportunity. Another contender is Where's Bin Laden? - a spoof of the Where's Wally? books, but it's still early days.
It looks like it's going to be a late Christmas in the book trade, in which case the likes of Palin, Piper and Bryson still have a chance of earning back their advances.
However, I won't be buying any of these books. I would recommend Peter Ashely's Unmitigated England, which is one of the best books I've seen for a long time. Last year there was a glut of nauseating titles inspired by the dreadful Pocket Book of Patriotism. Unmitigated England is in a class of its own, celebrating things that are uniquely English without ever sinking into sentimental jingoism.