Boyd Tonkin: At last, there's a bit of variety in the bestseller lists


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A few years ago a major publisher announced the mega-bucks purchase of a memoir by a
Big Brother contestant whom it gushingly called "the nation's sweetheart". Pretty soon, she wasn't even her sweetheart's sweetheart any more and the book went the way of all over-hyped ephemera. But to wean publishers off their addiction to betting on flash-in-the-pan celebrity titles would take a 12-step programme tougher than any faced by a fading starlet in rehab.

The book business knows that, this autumn, celebrity books have under-performed while fiction has proved resilient. Yet Ebury, part of the Random House combine, last week placed a job advert for a celebrity editor. "Amy, Lily or Cheryl – who would you choose?" it asked, going on to reassure applicants "passionate about popular culture" that "While experience within a book publishing environment would be an advantage, it is not essential as full support will be given." Good to have a leading publisher make that clear at last.

As always, the book-buying public is smarter than the metropolitan trend-surfers who second-guess its tastes. How revealing that many of the most commercially successful TV-related memoirs have, in recent pre-Christmas seasons, emerged not from the glitziest stars but personalities with modest backgrounds, offbeat charm and a genuine story to tell: Paul O'Grady, Frankie Boyle. Sheer glamour, even publishers should spot by now, matters less to most readers than the experience and outlook which will ensure a proper read.

Fiction, meanwhile, has proved a refuge in troubled times. While many usual mass-market suspects ride high in the charts – Dan Brown, Martina Cole, John Grisham – don't underestimate the variety even at the head of the sales lists. This week's top 20 has two titles in translation, by Stieg Larsson and Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It features the year's Man Booker winner (Hilary Mantel), Robert Harris's most challenging Roman novel so far, Lustrum, and the latest from Terry Pratchett and Sue Townsend, both unique stylists. Even at peak season for populist crowd-pleasers, diversity can still thrive. That's the reality the bookshops now show.

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