Boyd Tonkin: Industry bets on high-risk investments

The book trade should count itself lucky that Super Thursday precedes Woeful Wednesday, 20 October
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The Independent Culture

Just like some champagne-soused banker with a bonus in his pocket, the celebrity memoir has roared back as if those teeny embarrassments of the past few years never really happened. It's a rewind autumn. Stephen Fry's second volume of reminiscences has out-performed already soaring hopes. Another hardcover comeback kid, Paul O'Grady, has struck pay dirt again, with Russell Brand (ditto) helping himself to a repeat Top 10 place. Meanwhile, this week's "Super Thursday" of big-name releases will represent a spend of several million pounds from corporate publishers who are supposedly sunk in gloom at the digitally-administered death of the printed book.

Has celebrity publishing really bounced back, or simply lost its head? In good times or bad, the sector always depended on high-cost, and high-risk, investments. During the early-Noughties climate of a general consumer boom, some titles (hello, Anthea Turner) famously bombed and took big advances down in flames with them. That happens in the book business. The only difference with the rest of the industry is that, with modern celebs, both the names and the numbers tend to appear in lights.

But the rewards for bestsellers still remain immense – and the gamble a rational one. In publishing, feelgood entertainment for a modest outlay can weather most downturns. That goes especially for a slump that – for mortgage-payers in stable employment – is something seen on the news more than felt in the pocket. As yet. The book trade should count itself lucky that Super Thursday precedes Woeful Wednesday, 20 October.

Another factor helps sustain the genre: our undiminshed appetite for mass-audience, talking-point TV. From Fry to Macintyre, French to Dench, the roll-call of "national treasures" with books to plug partners a continuing cult of TV personalities exposed not via digital niches but on free-to-air channels. Rupert Murdoch will benefit from this season's starry tomes: his publishing arm, HarperCollins, bankrolls several, from Brand to The Stig. But if he reflects on what the super-sellers say about our affection for mainstream, broad-spectrum stars, then BBC boss Mark Thompson might decide that "Super Thursday" should be a red-letter day for public broadcasting as well.

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