Heavyweights join thrillers and sagas in airport lounge

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For those who think the airport bestseller is a thick Jeffrey Archer packed with sex, money and politics, think again.

One of the summer hits at Waterstone's bookstore at Gatwick is Africa - Despatches from a Fragile Continent, a fascinating but by no means light read by Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James is doing well, and around a dozen copies of The Pleasures of the Imagination, a pounds 30 hardback on the culture of the 18th century, have also been sold.

This is presumably not destined for the beach - but then, neither is many a modern holidaymaker.

Francis Cleverdon, the store manager, said it was always a surprise to discover you could sell the more difficult books, even to a market dominated by people intent on having two weeks' fun in the sunshine. The Gatwick shop has the highest turnover per square foot of any in the Waterstone's chain.

"Before we arrived, people weren't offered the full range so everybody expected that an airport novel was a mass-market read. Now that they're offered better pieces of writing, they snap them up."

Their number one is the more conventional airport offering, Icon by Frederick Forsyth, which is also number three on WH Smith's current bestsellers. Number two is the book of the Independent's Bridget Jones' diary, which has also been a hit at Smith's.

Julie Wright, the chain's popular fiction buyer, said the success of Bridget Jones's Diary was a surprise to them, apparently completely prompted by word of mouth. "It's something featured in a broadsheet newspaper. We are mass market, but it is in our top five because people have just been telling other people about it."

Doorsteps of books - particularly thrillers and sagas - still dominate with writers such as James Herbert and Stephen King in the top ten. The airports reflect trends in the high street. "When people are buying a paperback, 600-page books do brilliantly well because they look such good value."

But there has been a change in the last five years, Miss Wright said. "People are definitely starting to read things that are more literary so there's no great divide between the literary market and the mass market now. Joanna Trollope came along and revolutionised the female market. She's more contemporary, more literary, but she does appeal right across the board."

For many people, going on holiday may be one of the few times a year they buy a book, she said. Sales rise with the holiday season, with June to the end of August a period rivalled only by Mother's Day and exceeded by Christmas.

Many people do not want the hassle of choosing what is going to keep them entertained in the sunshine. Smith's make recommendations which many seem more than happy to follow. Others simply go by the cover. An eyecatching title can attract the browsing market.

But for the initiated, the airport shops hold a special lure because they get many books months before they are issued in paperback elsewhere. Iain Banks' Song of Stone can be bought at Gatwick but nowhere else in Britain at present. Tom Clancy's Executive Orders is still only in hardback in your local book store.

"People who don't know seize upon them with great amazement," Francis Cleverdon said.