The Big Sell: Behind closed dors, deep in a Swindon warehouse, an Independent journalist hears salesmen offering sex, crime, culture and food to Mr Big. a 27,000-word non-fiction blockbuster

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'HAVE you seen the masher yet?' someone asked over lunch. The masher is a book-pulping machine, tucked away in the corner of W H Smith's warehouse in Swindon. Almost 20 per cent of all books sold in Britain come through this warehouse, once the largest in Europe, comprising eight miles of shelving. The masher is the end of the line, testimony to wrong decisions, false promises, lousy covers, an unresponsive public, bad books.

Four floors above the masher, hope springs eternal. In a tiny room with steamed-up windows, a publishing company is trying to convince W H Smith that its new list of books is the best ever, and that the shop must buy them in huge quantities. The subtext is: these books will sell, and make lots of money, and will not end up in the pulping machine.

Swindon has been headquarters to W H Smith since 1985. Each year representatives from every major publishing house journey from London to spend several hours in the company of W H Smith buyers. The buyers decide how best to fill the shelves of their 505 shops and stalls. W H Smith is aware of its staid image, and resents the fact that despite its prestigious annual literary award and schemes promoting first-time authors and children's books, and despite the huge back-catalogue in its larger shops, it is still often seen solely as a purveyor of pulp paperbacks and DIY manuals. Yet it is hard to overestimate the company's influence, even for more literary publishing houses: if the Smith's buyers don't like a book, or its cover or its price, then the size of its order, and chance of success, will be reduced greatly.

Three weeks ago it was the turn of Reed Consumer Books, the company that markets and distributes Heinemann, Secker & Warburg, Sinclair-Stevenson, Methuen and Conran Octopus.

The sales department is presenting the highlights of its July-December catalogue. This is a critical time for publishers: the vast majority of all books sold are bought in the four months before Christmas.

Reed has three people in the room, W H Smith four or five (as a new specialist category of book is introduced some buyers leave and new ones arrive). As each book is presented, a Reed person displays a mock-up of the cover, while W H Smith people jot notes on a photocopied catalogue that displays sales points such as 'huge media interest guaranteed' and 'highly promotable author'. About 60 books are presented in this session; the titles included below provide the best insight into this normally hidden process, and are fairly representative of the range of books on offer. It will be some months before W H Smith decides how many of each title it will buy; this is the first the buyers have heard of these titles, and they will not order until they have seen what other publishing houses have to offer.

Flavour of the Month, by Olivia Goldsmith

Reed: 'Our first title, a very big title for us, is Olivia Goldsmith. I know you're big fans of Olivia Goldsmith. Now, I hope you agree that the jacket is pretty good.

(The jacket is held up: two luscious cherries dangling from a highly pedicured foot.)

W H Smith: Mmmm, toe-suckingly good.

Reed: The first novel is doing so well (The First Wives Club, being turned into a film by the makers of Fatal Attraction). As you know, we will be giving the paperback a great deal of attention in March. I think the new hardback will be absolutely great. In true Olivia style, it's about revenge, but in a very different way. It's about a woman who starts off life as an actress in New York and has one hell of a time. She gets to that low point in her life where she's lost her man, lost her job, and she's basically deeply pissed off. Suddenly she comes into a lot of money, and she decides that the only way to get herself out of her situation is to transform herself. So she goes to a plastic surgeon. She sets about having a completely new life. She gets all the parts she wants, she meets up with the boyfriend who ditched her and immediately has a passionate affair with him. Basically it's absolutely great. You know The First Wives Club, you know how sassy and sexy it is. It is exactly that, but in a slightly different context, and with quite a lot of the action happening in California.

WHS: Her first boyfriend has no idea that it's her?

Reed: Exactly] There's a very chilling moment when he discovers.

WHS: The cover is great.

Reed: It's so hard finding a perfect set of toes. The third toe along needs a little tidy-up. We obviously want to make this book huge.

The Call of the Lion, by Christopher Sherlock

Reed: We don't see why Wilbur should have African adventure entirely to himself. We've been building Christopher Sherlock, a young South African, for three books. He works in advertising and writes very exciting African fiction. The last book he veered off the track and wrote about motor-racing, but here he's back with the lions, in the place where men are men and women have large bosoms and lots of exciting things go on. He came over to promote the last book, and we really didn't think it was a totally good idea, but he really wanted to come. It turned out to be one of the most successful author tours we had.

WHS: Why didn't you think it was a good idea for him to come over?

Reed: There are stages in an author's career when you want to bring them over, and stages where they want to bring themselves over, and this was the latter.

Rotten Apples, by Terry Kirby

Reed: A non-fiction book by the Independent crime correspondent. He's won awards for his coverage over three years of the extremely rotten apples in the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad. They've just been in the news again because of the Carl Bridgewater murder. This will be the first book that looks at the whole story of how these very rotten apples indeed managed to get such extraordinary power within the crime squad and how they went on unresisted for years - the Birmingham Six etc, and many, many people ended up in prison because of them.

WHS: True crime, then.

Reed: True crime, absolutely.

Ludwig: A Spiritual Thriller, by Leslie Kenton

Reed: This is written by a woman who's had the most enormous success with her health books. Everyone knows about The Joy Of Beauty, Raw Energy and Ageless Ageing, though no one admits it. Now what she's decided to do is write fiction. This is the most extraordinary book. The hero is a Rambo-esque figure who leaves the forces to become a journalist. He goes to Europe, and someone gives him a manuscript to do with Ludwig van Beethoven. And this man, from being all tough and difficult, becomes obsessed with the spirit of Beethoven. I'm afraid I can't really describe much more. But it's a Caroline Upcher book. You will know Caroline (an editor at Heinemann) from Julie Burchill and Helen Storey and other major authors. She has said that this is the most powerful book she has read for a very long time. She thought Leslie would do a book about the glitz and ritz behind the health business. But she started reading it and she was completely taken over. I think we might have a very, very hot property here . . .

(She hands out photocopied press packs.)

Leslie, as you know, is a tireless self-promoter. The book will appeal to her original fans, a slightly new-agey, alternative lot, but also I think we'll get a whole new area, too. We've got to work very, very hard on the marketing side, there's no question.

WHS: You need to let us read it, then.

Reed: She lives in this great cottage in Wales and communes with nature and has a wide variety of children. (She's the daughter of Stan Kenton, the jazz musician.) The jacket has been specially commissioned (a dark photograph of a sculpture. The title is in red, suggesting blood).

WHS 1: Do you think it will appeal to women?

Reed: I think so.

WHS 1. The problem with the name Leslie coupled with that cover is that a lot of people will think that she's a man.

Reed: There will be a huge specially commissioned portrait of her on the back.

WHS1: But people might not get that far.

WHS2: When will we see something?

Reed: The manuscript is still being worked on.

The Fatal Bodice, by Alina Reyes

Reed: Right. Smut. Alina Reyes, who did The Butcher. As you know, The Butcher masqueraded as literature, and it was in fact pornography. We undersold it. When the author came over from France she got incredible publicity. The paperback got into the top ten. The new hardback, the subject matter obviously has to be smutty, but not as . . . well, Lucie's Long Voyage involved animals. We're back to . . .

WHS: (Ironic) Literature?

Reed: It's two women, very jealous. We're very, very happy with it.

On The Contrary, by Andre Brink

Reed: South African writer. Did very, very well with An Act of Terror, a Secker hardback. This is a much more literary novel than that. It's set in the 18th century. A brilliant read, very absorbing, and we hope has a very good chance of the Booker shortlist.

WHS: 'I've only read a couple of his books, but Chain of Voices remains one of my all-time favourites.

Reed: He has that potential, and I think this might be the one he does it with.

'Five Sugars Please', by John Hegley

Reed: This one is subtitled 'Talking about my feelings ain't my cup of tea, ('cos revealing how I'm feeling isn't my Darjeeling)'. That gives you an idea. You were a bit cautious on his last one ('Can I Come Down Now Dad?') . . .

WHS: We bought it. I call that wildly extravagant.

Reed: His amount of fans out there is huge. . . . Some of them may not have bought a book before.

Making An Exhibition Of Myself, by Peter Hall

Reed: The big autobiography, and I promise you it's coming this time. He's guaranteed it - we've got a lot of the manuscript already. I don't have to tell you about all the early beginnings, the great productions, the great wealth, all his wives.

WHS: It's a great cover. (A dramatic mug-shot of Hall.)

Reed: He'll be promoting it tirelessly.

WHS: I'm not sure it's that big a book for us. I think a lot of people don't know who he is.

WHS: A lot of these books flatter to deceive, they promise much, but disappoint. But a very good cover.

Reed: It needs a huge Sunday Times serialisation to become an event. We will convince you with our publicity plans.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor, by A N Wilson

Reed: After his Jesus book he's turned to the Queen et al.

WHS: Will it sell as much as Andrew Morton?

Reed: Nothing will sell as much as Andrew Morton.

WHS: There will be four or five other House of Windsor books between now and then.

Reed: We did think of waiting until the spring to avoid Di-fatigue.

Sequel to 'Rebecca', by Susan Hill

Reed: This is our most important book of the autumn. We have yet to work on the jacket, we don't have a title, we have yet to have the manuscript . . .

WHS: But you've already paid the advance.

Reed: We're incredibly excited and confident about it. We're going to spend a lot of money on it.

WHS: Is it definite for the autumn?

Reed: Absolutely. It has so much going for it. It's an event, and we'll be keeping it under lock and key. Susan has such a great track record. The original book, I re-read it three weeks ago and I stayed up until two in the morning. I think people want to know what on earth happened after they drove over, or, well, they didn't get to Manderley in the end . . . It lends itself to a sequel. It's something we want to work hard with you on.

WHS: Are we going to see some material?

Reed: If you feel you need to see something to plan a huge campaign, then we can talk about that.

WHS: Do people need reminding about 'Rebecca'?

Reed: They may do of the ending, but they'll know the first line. What I would like to propose is that we have a separate meeting just about this book.

It could be huge. The build-up in the press will be fantastic.

WHS: The easiest way to give us belief in it is to let us see it. It's not in our interest to start leaking the story.

Reed: We can talk about that. We're yet to decide who's allowed to read it in-house.

A break in the meeting, as new Smith buyers arrive from the travel and leisure department.

Classic Winners, by Tony Morris

Reed: Tony Morris is on Sporting Life. He is very well connected as a journalist. This is really, in words and pictures, his favourite moments from classic horseraces over 30 years . . . those precious moments that racing fanatics love to look at again and again.

WHS: What's the difference between this and Great Races, the Sean Magee book of a couple of years ago?

Reed: This is more about the final moments of a race.

WHS: So Great Races was about the entire race, and this is just the final moments? (Uproar of laughter.)

Reed: If you haven't seen the book, it's very difficult to tell you exactly. To be brutally frank, at present this has just got black and white photos. Presumably you need colour with racing books?

WHS: Yes. . . .

Sex, by Madonna

Reed: There will be more Sex in the autumn.

WHS: She's definitely doing it?

Reed: We still don't know what we're getting, but we understand we're getting a paperback or another edition. It might contain extra photos and new text. I think it will be something very surprising when it comes. At the moment we're scheduling for October, but it's entirely in the hands of the Americans. We have a better relationship with the Americans now.

Other books discussed in this section include a picture book on the Rolling Stones and a celebration of the television programme 'This Is Your Life'. Then it's time for picture books on cookery, gardening and crafts. There is a lot more to see here, with many laminated page samples passed around from each book.

Terence Conran's Kitchen Book

Reed: This is a really major book. There hasn't been a major book on the kitchen since Terence did his 20 years ago. Kitchens are so much more important now than they were. People really live in kitchens now.

WHS: I know I do.

Reed: It starts with how the kitchen's changed. Then it looks at professional kitchens and what we can learn from them. Then it looks at the kitchen as the hub of the house and how you can actually make it into the most friendly, delightful place. Then it looks at the design of the kitchen. What's great is that because Terence is who he is, all these famous people wanted to design kitchens for the book. The range is so exciting it just makes you want to start again. When you think of what you spend on doing a kitchen, it's a bargain at pounds 25.

WHS: People invest in kitchens like no other room. Do you have any colour supplement interest?

Reed: We will have, let me tell you. Terence is such a megastar. I'd like to know what you're thinking of in terms of numbers. I'm not talking about 10,000, but I suppose 5,000. If you're going to go big with it, maybe we could do a competition to win a kitchen.

WHS: I'm worried about the price. No matter how good the book, pounds 25 is a lot for a book in Smith's.

Reed: If you think of how much money you spend on a kitchen. You get so much information here. Kitchens are so expensive, and people are prepared to spend that money. People live in kitchens.

Medieval Needlepoint, by Candace Bahouth

Reed: A wonderful book on medieval needlepoint. We're producing it to look a little bit like a medieval manuscript. Her tapestries are really scrummy, all especially photographed, and enormously appealing to make. How is needlepoint doing?

WHS: Quite a lot of competition. Cross-stitch has been so successful, and a lot of people will be moving to other forms of embroidery. At the moment it's still quite limited. It's a lovely book.

Reed: There are so many great things you can make with it.

WHS: It's ideal for the church kneeler market.

Reed: It's a very, very strong craft autumn.

Several other cookery and gardening books are discussed. Three of these are described as 'scrummy', and two are described as 'the absolute bible'.

At the end of the presentation, which has lasted for 3 1/4 hours, the Smith's people express enthusiasm for the quality of the books on offer. Several more meetings will occur before any orders are placed.

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