Miles Kington: Get your readers to write the next Christmas bestseller

No matter how good the journalists are on any paper, the most popular features are always those written by the readers... letters and personal ads

Dear Mr Kington,

You may have noticed that a plethora of books has appeared in the past few months with pseudo-scientific titles like Does Anything Eats Wasps?, and Why do Buses Come Along In Groups of Five? and Is That A Dagger That I See Before Me, Or Am I Just Hallucinating After Taking Those Funny Mushrooms?.

These books are all full of idle queries which readers have sent in to papers like the Guardian and the New Scientist. The editors of these papers have finally tumbled to the fact that these queries, and their answers, make wonderfully popular little columns called something along the lines of "Odds and Sods", "Whispers and Murmurs" or "Queries and Answers". When the column has been running for long enough, it then occurs to them to put a selection of the best into book form. Then loads of people buy them. And somebody makes a lot of money.

The question I want to put to you, Mr Kington, is this: Why don't YOU start a similar column? Then you can turn it into a book and we can all be rich!

And the great advantage of a column like this is that it obeys the Golden Rule of Journalism.

What is the Golden Rule of Journalism?

(If you had a column called "Q & A" you wouldn't need me to tell you this!)

The Golden Rule of Journalism is that no matter how good the journalists are on any paper, the most popular features are always those written by the readers. Think of The Times. What are the two features in The Times which are most world-famous? The letters page. And the personal ads column. Who writes them both? The readers. And how much does it cost the paper? Nothing! (In the case of the personal ads, the readers actually pay to write them!)

Until recently, reader participation was restricted to writing letters and personal ads, but suddenly newspapers have discovered the value of getting readers to do the work in other areas. There is a feature on The Telegraph's food page called Readers' Recipes. And in various travel pages, readers are positively urged to send in their own accounts of trips abroad, which are freely splashed in print along with the professional stuff. You read these, and you think, How nice that the genuine punter is passing on his advice and experiences for us to share. But perhaps what we should be thinking is: How cushy for the travel editor to get someone else to do the work and not get paid for it.

(Agony aunts have discovered the same principle. They have started to invite the readers to solve their correspondents' problems, or at least to pool their helpful experiences. Phone-in programmes - even those as posh as Jonathan Dimbleby's Any Answers - use the same principle ie get the customer to do all the work, for free!)

Well, Mr Kington, I think the time has come for you to cash in on this racket.

All you have to do is start the ball rolling in some zone of expertise such as word origins, or famous last words, or the verification of quotations ... No, come to think of it, Nigel Rees has already cornered that market. But it should not be beyond the wit of man to spot some ingenious area of knowledge which has still not been cultivated. Folk remedies ... gardening lore ... common fallacies ... catch phrases ... something like that. Start the ball rolling, get the readers hooked, and in a year's time you'll have a little book which will make you a fortune at Christmas time.

What do you think, Mr Kington?

Yours sincerely ...

What do I think?

I think that if any other readers have thought-provoking letters of that same length, they should send them to me as soon as possible so that I can print them in this space instead of an article, and take the day off, as I have today.

Thank you in anticipation.

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