Major set to join great Tory bookslide
Like many of his colleagues, the former prime minister hopes to cash in on his memoirs - while he can.
Sunday 29 June 1997
Last week the book trade was reflecting on the news that the former prime minister is about to close a deal for his account of life at No. 10 that could turn into a pounds 1.5m windfall for his pension fund. But the market for Tory ministers' memoirs, publishing insiders said, has very much passed its peak.
Jeffrey Archer, the best-selling novelist, has been advising Mr Major and has suggested an arrangement with his own publisher, Harper Collins, just as he did for Margaret Thatcher.
"No deal has been concluded yet, because the former prime minister made it clear he would not be considering any book offers until he stopped being leader of the opposition, and that only happened last week," said Lord Archer, who arranged for Harper Collins to publish Norma Major's best-selling coffee-table book on the charms of Chequers, the prime minister's country home. "The last time I spoke to him he was very much in two minds about writing his memoirs. I know he is more inclined to lead a more peaceful life now he is out of office. He is certainly not interested in some big political job with the UN, NATO or the European Union.
"Of course the problem is that John will have to do something - he is only 54 - but whatever it is, I know he intends to be supportive of the new leadership. He has told me that he would never do to the new leader what was done to him."
Assuming Mr Major does commit pen to paper, the result will be a best- seller like Margaret Thatcher's The Downing Street Years. A big difference between his literary career and that of his predecessor, however, will be the size of his advance.
The deal struck by Baroness Thatcher in 1992, for a three-book package, created the political memoir market's high water mark and is thought to have been worth more than pounds 3m. Publishers and agents think the most Mr Major could hope to pocket would be pounds 600,000 - enough to buy the new London home, near Lord's or the Oval cricket grounds, the Majors seek.
The BBC has already approached the former prime minister with the plan for a significant documentary on his Downing Street years, so the publication of the Major memoirs should coincide with the television broadcast. A lucrative lecture tour of the American university circuit could begin at the same time further boosting sales and accumulating fees, perhaps to the tune of pounds 1m.
But even these spin-off earnings are dwarfed by Baroness Thatcher's estimated pounds 2m payments for discoursing and dining her way across Japan and the United States. It is not just the fact that Mr Major failed to achieve the international profile of his handbag-swinging predecessor that makes his autobiography a less hot property. The market for political soul-bearing has changed over the past two years.
"The market is different today for a number of reasons. One of the most important is that there has been something of a glut of political memoirs from leading Tories in recent years," said Iain Dale, the managing director of Politico's, Britain's only bookstore devoted solely to political publications. "Another is the general feeling of disaffection for politicians felt by the book-buying public. In a sense, the two volumes of Margaret Thatcher's political memoirs said most of what needed to be recorded from inside her cabinet, and notwithstanding John Major most of his inner circle were a pretty colourless bunch."
The big exception to the current trend is the success of the Alan Clark diaries. They were first published in 1993 and have been serialised in a newspaper and relaunched as a paperback.
"The diaries became a blockbuster that are still selling very well in paperback and it is easy to understand why," said Mr Dale. "For a start they are simply a riveting read, well written, witty and candid. And for people interested in the political process there is the added bonus of detail on the peripherally involved figures. In a way Clark has upped the ante. Publishers want a new Clark - a juicy, well-written, uncompromising read. A self-justifying diatribe from the likes of John Gummer or Malcolm Rifkind would struggle to find a publisher today."
So the future looks gloomy for all those middle-ranking still-unpublished Tories, unless they are prepared to spill the beans.
The defeated leadership challenger Kenneth Clarke will probably write his inside story, although publishers and agents agree that the ex-chancellor will be lucky to get pounds 100,000.
But in defiance of market trends the great Tory bookslide sweeps on. In addition to Mr Major and Mr Clarke, the next 18 months should see new tomes from former "Black Wednesday" chancellor Norman Lamont, Michael Heseltine and (after a delay of many years) Sir Edward Heath.
There's more. You thought you'd seen the last of The Iron Lady in print ? Think again. In October, Harper Collins is to publish The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher at pounds 30 a copy. And for really dedicated fans who cannot wait that long, a special leather-bound limited edition of the book is going on sale next month at pounds 250 a copy.
Conservatives in print: a critical guide
The View from Number 11
Published by Bantam
Price: pounds 20
Detailed accounts of the Treasury minutiae behind each of the former Chancellor's six budgets. At 1119 pages it is not to be taken lightly but good value for those with stamina
"Nigel Lawson has written the most boring volume of political memoirs since Atlee published his recollections under the fraudulent title of 'As it Happened'", Ian Aitken, The Guardian
Sold well and went into paperback. "Good for the serious student of 1980s politics, quite readable" said Iain Dale of Politico's
Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Price: pounds 14.95
Revelations about the not so happy Tebbit childhood and his escape from Ponder's End into the RAF. First-hand account of the IRA bombing in Brighton
"He does not succeed in putting himself across as particularly likeable or admirable" Joe Rogaly, Financial Times
"Disappointing. Only 280 pages long and no new insight to the Thatcher cabinet. Now out of print and never asked for." Politico's
The Downing Street Years and The Path To Power
Price: pounds 25
Together the two books provide the serious political scientist and future historian with a complete review of the inside track to the British political scene in the 1980s
"There was Methodism in her madness ...The Path To Power is often written in sludgy sepia ...Mark and Carol are rarely seen and even less heard", Andrew Rawnsley
Heavyweight best sellers. The Iron lady still has a formidable host of admirers prepared to buy her books. Available as a seven-hour audio tape
The Enterprise Years
Price: pounds 16.95
Unremarkable tale of businessman's blind devotion to Thatcher being consistently rewarded with higher and higher office, culminating in cabinet seat as Trade Secretary
"Irredeemably, if at times endearingly, lightweight. But the prose, alas is another matter. there is a remarkable air of unreality about it all"
John Plender Financial Times
Complete Turkey. "It felt ghostwritten, no polish, sold a few but the rest were quickly remaindered at pounds 4." Politico's
The Whitelaw Memoirs
Price: pounds 14.95
A litany of loyalty from back bencher to leader of the Lords. Reveals author's deep shame as Home Secretary when intruder broke into Queen's bedroom
"Whitelaw is one of natures great second-in-commands. In the book there is no hint of anything but complete loyalty to and admiration for Mrs Thatcher"
Woodrow Wyatt The Times
Almost as bad as Lord Young's. Did not go into paperback. The book, like its content, now largely forgotten
A Balance of Power
Price: pounds 12.95
The first of the 20 ministers who left the Thatcher cabinet to go into print. Quite venomous especially about Geoffrey Howe. Said Treasury team 'not a very impressive bunch'
"Jim Prior is one of the decent men of the last decade, and as such he has been a rarity in high Conservative politics", Hugo Young The Guardian
Surprisingly well received and sold well at the time. Must come in the top five of the Thatcher-era autobiographies
Right At The Centre
Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Price: pounds 18.99
Parkinson could have gone on to lead the Tory Party but for the Sara Keays affair - disappointingly he deals with this career-shaping crisis as a mere formality
"It is an engaging book that handles serious politics with an easy style and a self-effacing charm", John Biffen Sunday Telegraph
Did not sell well and went out of print without going into paperback. His recent return as party Chairman has revived interest
Price: pounds 18
No surprises. A dull, bread-and-butter account of how the author ran three government departments - a team player known as 'a safe pair of hands'
"An autobiography which is as bland as a press release ... by an ambitious politician who intends to leave no hostages to a possible revival of fortune" Robert Harris Sunday Times
The biggest Turkey among Thatcher's literary fledglings. Rumoured to have sold only 5000 copies nationally
Conflict of Loyalty
Price: pounds 25
The tale of the turning worm. When Thatcher became leader Howe was her closest ideological soul-mate but his resignation speech was crucial in bringing her down
"A great servant, but not a great autobiographer. It is reminiscent of his normal soporific speeches and not at all like his celebrated resignation statement", Ian Gilmour The Observer
"One of the top sellers and still available three years after it was first published."
Alan Clark Diaries
Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Price: pounds 20
An act of literary exhibitionism. Clark is a latter day Pepys whose unflinching gaze gleefully records the foibles and fallibilities of the Tory grandees - as well as his own
"As for the much trumpeted rude bits, his scoring rate is well below Samuel Pepys. Most of the time he was more like a News of the World reporter" Sir Charles Powell The Times
"A genuine blockbuster still selling strongly and likely to stay in print following the success of the paperback." Politico's
Price: pounds 16.99
Gossipy, irreverent unabashed account of a serial seducer let loose in the corridors of power. Politics almost gets in the way of this romping 'confessions style' yarn
"This is the chap for whom the phrase 'ageing Lothario' might have been coined. 'Changing Dames', would have been a more accurate title", Edwina Currie, The Guardian
Good seller despite being serialised on radio. Now available as audio tape and there is talk of a new edition in time for Christmas
Price: pounds 16.99
Unremarkable account of a remarkably long career - five top jobs in 14 years, as his boastful publisher's claim Reveals an unreformed admiration for Ted Heath
"He was not a toff, like the Pyms and the Priors but a self-made man who left school at 16 to make his fortune, and he was a first-rate minister", John Campbell The Times
"Did not sell at all well, quickly remaindered in great quantity." Politico's
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