There will be blood on bookshop floors this Christmas as chavs, led by celebrity car-crash Kerry Katona, and national treasures, led by Michael Palin, scrap it out for the top spot in the festive book charts. Publishers have gambled heavily on an estimated 60 celebrity memoirs, ranging from Terry Wogan (price tag £1m) to Big Brother winner Pete Bennett (price tag £1m) that they hope will take the lion's share of a market that, at its peak, is worth £10m a week.
With only a handful of celebs selling their stories for less than six figures, publishers sound understandably nervous when asked to predict the winners. "Who do you think will do well?" is the inevitable reply to the question. HarperCollins's Trevor Dolby is candid: "If I knew how to predict one I would be a rich man." Dolby backed Pete Bennett's book, which is being turned around in six weeks. He has been an astute judge in the past: this summer he published Jade Goody's chart-topping autobiography.
The public is notoriously fickle in its affections; who can forget Anthea Turner's sudden descent from national sweetheart to national joke when her autobiography bombed? Books that dominate headlines when serialised can fail to shift in anything like the numbers expected - as happened to Edwina Currie's Diaries following the revelation of her affair with John Major.
The biggest problem facing publishers is that the majority of Christmas book buyers buy books once a year, making second-guessing their taste impossible. But Christmas has the power to turn a publisher into a profitable winner or ailing loser: traditionally, November and December are responsible for a third of the annual turnover of bookshop chains like W H Smith.
Celebrity autobiographies will take by far the biggest chunk of those sales, according to Jeremy Neate, head of research at Nielsen BookScan, which produces the charts. "The market for autobiographies rockets at Christmas to eight times its value for the rest of the year," he explains. "Most of the year, autobiographies, which are dominated by celebrities, are worth about half a million a week, then in September they rise to £1m a week, but by Christmas they are selling £10m a week." In comparison, biographies and history books rise to a far less festive £2.5m a week by Christmas.
The eight-fold increase in turnover on autobiographies means six-figure deals on top 10 hits should earn back their advance. But publishers are wincing this autumn, because at least five stars have squeezed over £1m each out of them. As well as Wogan and Bennett, comedian Peter Kay, ex-Take That singer Gary Barlow and actor Rupert Everett all got seven-figure deals, which means they must get into the Christmas top three bestsellers to justify their price tag. Clearly, without a corresponding increase in the size of the pie, five into three just won't go.
Further down the charts, the pressure is on too. A record number of celebrity titles cost over £500,000 this autumn, including Billie Piper (£550,000 from Ebury) and Kerry Katona (£650,000 from Hodder). Even Julie Goodyear, who as Bet Lynch last crossed the threshold of the Rover's Return three years ago, squeezed £200,000 out of Macmillan. So how do you ensure that you back a Sharon Osbourne and not an Anthea Turner?
Though this Christmas, autobiographies split neatly between downmarket (Katona, Bennett, Piper and Chantelle) and national treasures (Palin, Wogan, Alan Titchmarsh and Lesley Phillips), there are a handful of factors that can make or break them all. Forget newspaper serialisations (publishers agree they have increasingly less power to sell celebs), Parkinson and advertising; what matters is "the Bluewater Factor". Jade Goody has it, so does Michael Palin, but Jordan (aka Katie Price) took it to new heights: it is the ability to attract eager buyers in shopping centres from Newcastle to Exeter.
"What worked with Katie was the massive signing tour she did, which no celebrities like that had really done before," explains Price's book publicist Diana Colbert of Colbert Macalister PR. John Blake bought Being Jordan, Price's first memoir, for a paltry £10,000, after bigger rivals snubbed her. The book received equally short shrift from booksellers. Price proved them wrong with a 10-day tour that drew crowds aged from 11 to 70 and, contrary to expectations, almost exclusively female, who all bought copies of the book. Her recent deal with Random House is worth £300,000.
Colbert repeated the formula with Price on her last book, a ghostwritten novel that raced to the top of the charts, which is why three of her star clients this autumn - Kerry Katona, X Factor-winner Shayne Ward and Jordan's other half Peter Andre - will be coming to a shopping centre near you over the next two months. Jordan made publishers realise that a celebrity in the flesh is a priceless sales tool. "Before, celebrities would only give two or three days around publication for publicity, now it is being written into their contracts that they give at least 10 days," Colbert says happily.
Celebrities who refuse to go on the road this autumn will pay heavily when up against seasoned troupers. "It makes such a difference," says another publicist, wistfully. Last year, she worked with a well-known comedian whose book failed to live up to expectations. It was his fault, she says.
"He said he would do a lot of stuff, but the book turned out to be the lowest on his list of priorities. He was filming and just didn't understand how signings work," she wails. "He would call me and say, 'I'm available next Saturday, so do you want to set something up?' He didn't realise that a signing takes two months to organise. Someone like Jordan saying she will turn up and promote drives sales like nothing else."
Signings will only take celebrities so far: if their book looks like a cuttings job, any feel-good factor generated in the flesh will be lost on the page, which is why the second most important factor when drawing up odds on the Christmas number one is the ghostwriter.
"If a subject is working with a ghost, the first thing I look for is: can the ghost get that person's voice?" says publisher-turned-agent Eddie Bell, who sold Gary Barlow's £1m My Take to Bloomsbury. "I have read so many of these books, especially by footballers, where someone with an IQ of 84 reads like they are Rosamund Pilcher. It just sounds wrong. You have to get it right."
This is why good ghosts, such as Mark McCrum (behind Brice Parry's forthcoming autobiography) and Penelope Denning (Sharon Osbourne's ghost) are in demand. A ghost is part therapist, part writer, and if he or she fails to establish a rapport with their subject, it can be disastrous. An insider on Eamon Holmes's memoir blames the book's poor performance on a fall-out with his ghost, while Van Morrison's failure to publish is blamed by insiders on his being less than impressed by his ghost.
As well as an authentic voice, a good ghost will provide readers with a strong story that offers more meat than the celebrities' regular appearances in Heat and Closer. This is essential for tabloid fodder like Katona, whose troubled childhood, marriage and daily life have been well documented. Her book is ghosted by Fanny Blake, and Blake should wring every last drop of misery from it to appeal to the fast growing celebrity grit-lit market pioneered by Billy Connolly and finessed (ie taken downmarket) by Jade Goody. It is why Katona is a hot favourite for Christmas number one.
"I expect Kerry Katona to do well because there is a bit more of a story there," says HarperCollins's Trevor Dolby, who discovered the mega-selling Dave Peltzer while at Orion. "Misery is melding with celebrity now, which is very interesting, as it means you can hit two markets with the book."
Being "real" is vital for mass-market names, many of whose readers rarely cross the threshold of Waterstone's. Sharon Osbourne's Extreme, which last year defied book trade expectation to beat John Peel's Margrave of the Marshes to the Christmas number one spot, provided a sharp lesson to publishers about the pulling power of television.
Last year, Osbourne was providing viewers of the X Factor with the image of Britain's favourite mother hen. Her maternal kindness towards hapless contestants contrasted with the brutality of co-judges Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh. She also had a strong backstory; having rescued Ozzie from alcohol and drugs, she had overcome cancer, pulled her children through addiction and transformed her appearance from dowdy wife to glam mam. How could it fail?
Yet last Christmas, practically every publisher and bookseller I spoke to predicted that Peel would beat Osbourne to number one. Obviously they were not among the 10 million viewers who watched Sharon do her thing on TV every Saturday night in the run- up to Christmas.
Publishers often get this wrong, says agent Luigi Bonomi, who represents a host of celebrities from John Humphrys to How Clean is Your House? presenter Kim Woodburn, whose memoir Unbeaten (£350,000 to Hodder) has just topped the charts amid a tabloid brouhaha after it revealed she had secretly buried her dead baby. "You have to look at their viewing figures," Bonomi explains. "A person may be getting half a million viewers every show, but half a million viewers in television terms is awful. A daytime TV presenter may be on TV every day, but they are only getting 300,000 viewers - nowhere near enough to sell their book."
Amanda Harris, who bought Terry Wogan's memoir for Orion, agrees. "With Wogan you have the Togs (Wogan's fan club), so you know immediately that there are a million of them out there, as well as eight and a half million listeners to his show on Radio 2, so we knew he has huge appeal," she says.
But Christmas book buyers have a nasty habit of upsetting expectations, as they did three years ago when they took Lynne Truss's punctuation manual Eats, Shoots & Leaves to the top of the charts, despite strong celebrity titles bought for more than the £10,000 paid to Truss by tiny Profile Books. If that happens again, the blood on the bookshop floors this Christmas will not be that of celebrities, but of publishers doing the honourable thing before they have to face their shareholders and explain their losses.
ANY TAKERS? The following are understood to be hawking their memoirs around publishers
Paul O'Grady: informed sources say that the Lily Savage star is asking for offers in the region of £1m
Gail Porter: the glamour girl who lost her hair is reported to have just sold her memoirs for £150,000
John Christophe Novelli: the celebrity chef is looking for a publisher for a "memoir with recipes"; no big houses were understood to have bitten at the time of going to press
Rebecca Loos: David Beckham's nemesis appears not to have enticed any of the big hitters
Abi Titmuss: no buyers in the big houses for the tabloid favourite