Since the astounding success of that work, publishers have been scanning the horizon for a similar book to capture the reading public's imagination.
Rejected by 10 UK publishers before Fourth Estate published it in August 1996, Longitude was fifth in the hardback non-fiction best-sellers list that year (selling 84,000 copies) and rose to third place in 1997 (although with only 51,000 copies). No other hardback title has stayed on the list for two successive years except The Guinness Book of Records, which is published annually and so doesn't count.
The Arcanum by Janet Gleeson, sub-titled "The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain", is to be published in April by Bantam and is being widely tipped for similar success.
It describes Johann Fredrich Bottger's attempts to appease his jailer, King Augustine of Saxony, through alchemy and his valuable chance discovery, which cost him his life. Christopher Hart of Ottakars Bookshop in Folkestone said in last week's Bookseller that if it "does not sell at least as well as Longitude, I'll eat my socks... It has everything: fabulous wealth, greed, espionage, eccentricity bordering on madness, death, and the beauty of porcelain itself".
Another strong prospect is Mark Kurlansky's Cod, "A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World", to be published next month by Jonathan Cape. Like The Arcanum, it is refreshing and invigorating, full of fascinating facts about the extraordinary impact of this fish, and written in a breezy but feet-on-the-ground style.
Four elements appear to be the key to the success of Longitude: the quality of the writing, the heroic nature of a true story, the physical appearance of a book, and its price. Longitude tells of John Harrison's 40-year obsessional attempt to build the perfect clock. In doing so he solved 18th-century sailors' problems in measuring longitude, which earned him a pounds 20,000 reward (a staggering sum then) from a grateful nation.
Capitalising on its experience in publishing in this new genre, Fourth Estate published another surprise bestseller in 1997: Fermat's Last Theorem, which was number 10 in the year's hardback non-fiction list with 22,000 sales.