Authors in pursuit of trivia find their place on best-seller list

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The Independent Culture

The appeal of top 10 lists is nothing new in the world of popular literature - the Bible's Ten Commandments can make a claim to being a forerunner - but the publishing of essentially useless facts has never been more popular, or lucrative.

The appeal of top 10 lists is nothing new in the world of popular literature - the Bible's Ten Commandments can make a claim to being a forerunner - but the publishing of essentially useless facts has never been more popular, or lucrative.

Publishers are reporting a trivia-book boom - ignited by the runaway success of Schott's Original Miscellany, published by Bloomsbury in November 2002 at £9.99 and boasting everything from how to say "I love you" in 43 languages (including Gujarati and Braille) to diagrams on how to wrap a sari - and are already rolling out the titles in the run-up to the Christmas gift market.

Sales of Ben Schott's original pastiche of 19th-century miscellany, combined with his food and drink follow-up, have now passed the one million mark. The witty parody Shite's Unoriginal Miscellany sold 102,000 copies in the four months to Christmas last year, Fotheringham's Sporting Trivia and Sullivan's Music Trivia reached 70,000 and 50,000 units respectively, and Motson's National Obsession has passed 45,000 copies since its May publication.

Forthcoming additions to the pile include Queer Facts: The Greatest Gay and Lesbian Trivia Book Ever, cricket and rugby lists from Jonathan Agnew and Bill Beaumont, and Canongate's reissuing of The Book of Lists. The 15th edition of Russell Ash's Top Ten of Everything comes out next month.

One of the reasons behind the "revolution" in reference books is the mass of information available on the internet, says Toby Mundy, publisher of Atlantic Books, who released Nicholas Hobbes' Essential Militaria last year, which has sold 32,000 copies and been translated into six languages. "It has forced publishers to be more innovative, rather than updating an old series," he says. "This is what post-internet reference book publishing looks like. No one is again going to buy 26 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica - instead it's online subscriptions to the blue chip, blockbuster dictionaries and reference titles. The reason why Schott and the follow-ups have sold well is that list-based material still excites and interests the reader."

Jon Howells, of the bookseller Ottakers, says the traditional reference titles are being hit. He explains: "There's been a definite boom since Schott started in late 2002. In just over a month he sold more copies for us than the top three reference titles [ Guinness World Records, Pears Cyclopaedia and the Top Ten of Everything] put together. Then last year, sales of the best follow-ups [ The Book of Useless Information by Keith Waterhouse, That Book by Mitch Symonds, and Shite's Unoriginal Miscellany] were 400 per cent higher than the top three [ Guinness, Pears and the Big Read tie-in].

"It's bite-sized knowledge people are after, I suppose."

Nicholas Clee, editor of The Bookseller, says: "The best will go on and the rest disappear. But this is a thriving format. They are books ... with a long shelf life."

TOP TEN LISTS (PLUS ONE)

1 Schott's Original Miscellany, Ben Schott (Bloomsbury, 2002)

You don't need to know the Glasgow Coma Scale, but you're pleased that you do.

2 Shite's Unoriginal Miscellany, Antal Parody (Michael O'Mara, 2003)

Includes abandoned trade names for mashed potato.

3 Whitaker's Almanack, edited by Lauren Simpson (A&C Black)

The 136th edition.

4 Top Ten of Everything, Russell Ash (Dorling Kindersley, 2004)

With whopping colour photographs.

5 Schott's Food and Drink Miscellany, Ben Schott (Bloomsbury, 2003)

Lists minutiae including the six versions of Pimms.

6 Fotheringham's Sporting Trivia, Will Fotheringham (Sanctuary, 2003)

Applies the successful format to sport.

7 Eye Witness Top Ten Travel guides, assorted cities and countries (Dorling Kindersley)

Lists top tens of restaurants, accommodation and the like.

8 Motson's National Obsession, Adam Ward/John Motson (Sanctuary, 2004)

The great game's greatest trivia book from BBC commentator Motty.

9 That Book, Mitchell Symons (Bantam, 2003)

"Most fascinating facts are useless," says author Mitchell Symons, whose book of statistics' point lies in their pointlessness.

10 Inverne's Stage and Screen Trivia, James Inverne (Sanctuary, 2004)

Prominent screen spankings? - Take your pick from Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, Forsaking All Others (1934), to Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in Secretary (2002).

11 Rock and Pop Elevens, Simon Trewin, Tom Bromley and Michael Moran (Michael O'Mara, 2004)

Shamelessly stealing a gag from Spinal Tap, this is the list book that goes up to eleven.

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