To the spoilers the victory

David Lister gives a user's guide to the ignoble art of ruining your rival's game plan
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The Independent Online

Last Saturday a front-page banner at the top of the Daily Mail proclaimed a new two-part series: "The Real Anne Robinson. Starting today – the sensational story of her life she'd rather you DIDN'T read."

Well, that's true enough. Anne Robinson would have preferred Mail readers not to read the story of her rise from despair over alcoholism and losing custody of her child to the status of television superstar. But coyness is not the reason. Robinson is, after all, telling everything in her own autobiography.

The reason is that her autobiography was to be serialised two days later in a lucrative deal with The Daily Telegraph, complete with prime-time TV advertising plugs. If anyone was being coy in its choice of words it was the Daily Mail. It described its two-part profile by the feature writer Richard Pendlebury as a "special Mail series". For special series read spoiler.

Few things cause the adrenaline of a Fleet Street executive to flow as much as the opportunity for a spoiler. For authors expecting a welcome serialisation fee, a spoiler can be expensive. Anne Robinson is safe. The Mail's spoiler did not involve possession of her book. Insiders say that Richard Pendlebury used a mixture of cuttings, interviews with ex-friends of hers and Daily Mail folk-lore (she once worked there).

Others have not been so lucky. The Mirror's Paul Routledge was on the wrong end of spoilers twice, when his books on Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson got out prior to publication, ruining the author's serialisation deal with The Sunday Times and losing him £90,000.

Whether newspaper sales are ever affected by spoilers is another matter. Michael O'Mara, who published Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story and other books that have been targets for spoilers, has said: "Spoilers don't spoil. I've never known a spoiler that spoilt. It's all about editors' egos. They feel they have been cuckolded if a rival gets a scoop."

Spoilers come in five varieties:

1. The Classic. Get a good feature writer to rifle through the cuts, interview ex-friends and disgruntled relations and build up a life story. Pendlebury on Anne Robinson is a fine example. And always titillate the reader with the words "censored" or "What she DIDN'T Want People To read." It even makes your spoiler look like investigative journalism rather than the rival's simple buy-up.

2. The Write-Your-Own-Book spoiler. This is a fairly recent and commendably inventive take on the genre. If you can't get the celebrity autobiography you want, don't panic. There's always a willing reporter to knock out a book on that very same celeb. That happened just a couple of months ago when the Express Newspapers proprietor Richard Desmond was furious that his much cultivated chum Victoria Beckham sold her memoir to the Daily Mail. The Daily Express commissioned one of its own writers to write a rapid biography of Posh, and contacted the media savvy publisher, John Blake, a former editor of The People, who moved very fast to print the book. And suddenly once more we had "the book she didn't want you to read". If you don't have a reporter who can work quite that fast, then there's probably an unauthorised biography somewhere around. When The Daily Telegraph spent £100,000 on Germaine Greer's sequel to The Female Eunuch, the Mail appeared to be covering a lot of the same ground about Greer's life. It had bought an unauthorised biography by Christine Wallace, confident its readers wouldn't remember that had been run in The Times a year earlier.

3. The (Much-missed) Dirty Raincoat Spoiler. Those were the days. A reporter would cultivate someone at the publishers or printers. Said reporter would usually have a few hundred quid in his pocket. For obvious reasons, it's hard to get on-the-record confirmation of such transactions having taken place. So I merely note the coincidence of a broadsheet's serialisation of a high-profile biography in the early Nineties being successfully spoiled over three days by a tabloid; and a reporter from that tabloid being spotted near the book's printers. Rumour had it that he posed as a salesman.

4. The Ethical Indignation Spoiler. Deplore your rival's lack of morality in serialising a book from such a source (one who wouldn't do a deal with you). When The Mirror bought up Monica Lewinsky's book, the Mail attacked at length: "this whining autobiography... this naked appeal for sympathy".

5. The Oscar-Winning Spoiler. Perhaps the most daring spoiler of all. Again, all too little in evidence these days. The best example was when the News of the World received a tip that the Sunday People had a story about the chairman of a large retail company and a young woman. A News of the World reporter phoned the People's news desk, saying he was the solicitor representing the woman, and would they kindly read over the story...