Boyd Tonkin: Shadows behind the scandals

The week in books

Forget about scrapping pointless laws, as Nick Clegg recommends. We should probably enact a new one to ensure that, when politicians select a silly title for their memoirs, they must live up to it within. Peter Mandelson calls his apologia The Third Man. If only. "You know what the fellow said – in Britain, for ten years under the Blairgias, we had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but we produced Amy Winehouse, Ricky Gervais and the YBAs. In Brussels, I had brotherly love, I had five hundred days of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The Neuhaus 'Caprice' praline."

I shall leave to others to decide why the former First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Council, Secretary of State for Business (continue ad infinitum...) chooses on the cover of his testimony to recall a film and novella dominated by a shadowy crook who makes little children die in agony thanks to his trade in toxic remedies. Harry Lime, too, was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" – if not so keen on the rider upon which Mandelson always insists: "as long as they pay their taxes". His patron-cum-puppet, Cesare Blairgia himself, has meanwhile just tweaked the title of this own forthcoming tome, from The Journey to A Journey. Too messianic, some said about the former. Maybe he should have followed Baron Mandelson down the Graham Greene route and nicked the name of the master's Liberian travelogue from 1935: Journey Without Maps.

As Harry Lime knew, beneath the surface squabbles, there's always a deeper deal going down. With expensively-acquired political memoirs, look for the forces at work behind the covers. HarperCollins – Rupert Murdoch's book branch – publishes the Mandelson volume. The firm always was a favourite of Tory grandees when they came to pen, or have ghosted, their own pseudo-confessionals, especially in the days when Eddie Bell ran the show. Both Margaret Thatcher and John Major published there.

With the advent of New Labour, the balance of corporate power shifted. Gail Rebuck, married to key Blair adviser Philip Gould, led the Random House group. And contracts duly followed – though not as automatically as some observers think. The Harper team reportedly bid high for Blair and could have prevailed; he's a friend of Rupert, after all. Now the Mandelson link may hint that Random will no longer rule on the political shelves.

LibDems, appropriately, tend to favour not corporate giants but independent imprints. Aurum released Paddy Ashdown's autobiography; Virago – actually part of a large combine, but still independent in spirit - did Shirley Williams's. Vince Cable went with Atlantic. In spite of a paperback edition this month, he will not want to dwell on the title that he chose for his life-story. Free Radical. Talk about a hostage to fortune.

But why do publishers persist in throwing cheques at ousted politicos in the full knowledge that, these days, neither press excerpts nor actual sales will ever earn the money back? For a start (and Blair the £5 million kid aside), those cheques now carry more modest numbers than before. Intangible influence, both short- and long-term, also counts. Mere temporary expulsion from office by no means implies a permanent loss of clout. Ask Baron Mandelson of Foy and of Hartlepool, who joined the Cabinet thrice.

Friends familiar with high places may at some point open doors. Publishers such as HarperCollins and Random House ultimately report to multi-national cross-media parents: News Corporation for the former, Bertelsmann for the latter. Their sustained ability to move with a fair political wind across platforms and borders depends in the last instance on "soft" power as much as competition codes. It's not what you know... As even the mightiest book houses find themselves outgunned by the electronic content-chompers (Apple, Google, Amazon), a large investment in that old-fashioned slab of self-justifying print may yet pay dividends. If, that is, it has the right name on the jacket.

A screen among the shelves

Predictably mixed reactions greet the news that Waterstone's plans to open a cinema at its flagship store in Piccadilly. For every purr of delight at this bold move comes a howl of fury at the dilution of bookselling into showbiz. What's crucial is that Waterstone's, now headed by Dominic Myers (right), has signed a deal not with Popcorn Multiplex Inc but the classy Curzon group, notable for international art-house films and always strong in its programming of movies with a literary source. The fit looks snug. "Tie-ins" aside, bookshops seldom make enough of the movies' deep dependence on the written word. Prospects for imaginative sales and displays here look stellar.

The next big thing goes bust

It was always a matter not of if, but when. Now the ruthless shake-out of weaker early entries into the still-fragile e-reader market is gathering pace. Devices that just months ago leapt into contention as the next big thing in digital reading already look like so much useless, superannuated junk. Last month iRex Technologies, the Dutch firm that developed the Iliad reader, filed for bankruptcy protection. Now Interead, the British company behind the Cool-er Readers range, has gone into liquidation. 'Twas ever thus with new gadgetry. So the giants survive, with the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad likely to compete for supremacy, but both vulnerable to future generations of smart phones – in Apple's case, via competition from its own products. No blame attaches to the entrepreneurs who tried and failed to catch the first timid wave of early adopters. But any book publisher who hitches a long-term digital strategy to the future fortunes of any single piece of kit deserves instant deletion.

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