Media: Make a serial killing

It's not only books on the royals that newspapers want to serialise. Any old whiff of indiscretion or scandal will do.
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The Independent Culture
A WEEK after publishing extracts from Penny Junor's controversial biography of the Prince of Wales, executives at The Mail on Sunday are happily assessing its effect on the paper's fortunes. They conclude that Charles: Victim or Villain? was a big success. It kept the paper in the news for a full week, and boosted circulation by 10 per cent. The pounds 500,000 paid for the rights to the juiciest snippets from the book was money well spent.

It was seven months ago that the paper heard the book was on the market for serialisation. A decision was made to snap it up immediately, paying record rates to Ms Junor, and preventing a bidding war with other papers. "Virtually any royal book is ideal for serialisation, and will command big money from newspapers," says a Mail on Sunday insider.

A rival royal author, Anthony Holden, would agree. He recently secured a six-figure sum for another Charles biography, this time from the Daily Mail. "I'm currently working on biographies of Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare," says Mr Holden. "But the money I received for Charles was several hundred per cent more. My books about royalty subsidise the other books I want to write."

Ben Pimlott is a third example of newspapers' almighty appetite for the rights to royal books. His biography of the Queen set a record in 1996, when its publisher, HarperCollins, paid Mr Pimlott about pounds 250,000 for the book, and raised 90 per cent of that sum from selling the serialisation rights. It was the most significant serialisation deal since 1992 ,when Andrew Morton sold the serialisation of Diana: Her True Story to The Sunday Times, and the industry watched the paper's readership figures double overnight.

Book serialisation by newspapers has, in the last few years, become a hugely more competitive and sophisticated business than in the past. A decade ago, it was only The Sunday Times that was consistently interested in serialisations - and the sums paid were modest by today's standards. "Only a few years ago," says the literary agent Giles Gordon, "Andrew Neil, who was then editor of The Sunday Times, told me that `you people should be paying us to serialise books'." He thought that serialisation amounted to free publicity for publishers.

Since then, the dailies have entered the market, and prices have shot up. Recent examples abound: The Sun has serialised Richard Branson's autobiography; the Mail bought up Nick Leeson's story; The Daily Telegraph has serialised Chris Patten's book East and West, and The Times has snapped up books on everyone from Robert Runcie to the child murderer Mary Bell. Hardly a week goes by without another paper promoting itself on the back of its latest literary acquisition, or carrying a serialisation in its Saturday paper.

Katie Fulford, group rights director at HarperCollins, says that the market has become segregated into the sort of book that gives good returns as a serialisation, and the sort that doesn't. "It's becoming increasingly difficult to serialise books that are not highly newsworthy," she says. "But the money has increased dramatically for the big books - diaries, royal revelations. Six-figure sums are regularly paid." Newspapers have increased their budgets for serialisations, she says, but not the space they allocate to them - so they want the best serialisations going.

The newspaper buyers agree. "What we really want is high-class gossip," says one rights buyer on a national Sunday. "The current Woodrow Wyatt diaries in The Sunday Times are the big serialisation this season. There are enough nuggets in the newspaper extracts to make headlines, and the publisher is happy because the text is rich enough to suggest that it is worth buying the book." Giles Gordon concurs. He recently sold the rights to Margaret Cook's account of her marriage to the Foreign Secretary to a paper (rumoured to be the Sunday Times).

The hunger for books feeding off indiscretion or scandal is producing pressure on all sorts of people to consider exposing themselves in autobiography and diaries. "Imagine how much Ron Davies could get for his memoirs," said one newspaper rights buyer.

"If I were him, I'd be looking around for an agent."