There's gold in other people's dirt

Forget novelists: the intrusive biography is the new prize of the publishing scene, writes Chris Blackhurst
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A few years ago, an eminent publisher asked me if I was interested in writing a biography of Lord Hanson, who was in the news at the time because he was about to try to take over ICI.

We met and discussed the project. The advance was generous, pounds 40,000 if I remember correctly. It seemed like a good deal. Just before we shook hands, he said I would have to submit a synopsis. The book would, of course, have to be revelatory about one of our foremost industrialists. I baulked: what if there was no skeleton lurking in a never-opened cupboard? In which case, smiled the publisher, there would be no book. It was up to me to make the synopsis as "strong" - publishers' jargon for scandalous - as possible.

This was a Catch-22. Without the advance I would not have the time to tell whether there was something smelly in Hanson's past. But, without that stench, there would be no book contract. This firm of publishers, with a famous literary reputation, wanted scandal on a plate, and in that respect, although they would never admit it, their behaviour was no different from any tabloid newspaper editor.

I was reminded of this experience by the tale of Sir Tim Bell, image- maker to the Tory party and Mrs Thatcher's favourite public relations man when she was Prime Minister, who took cocaine and exposed himself a number of years ago. Given that his prime was during the Thatcher era, it is, perhaps, a bit late in the day, but Sir Tim is the subject of a biography by Mark Hollingsworth, an investigative journalist. Once it had been serialised in the Observer last weekend, other papers had piled in, and Sir Tim's errant behaviour became public knowledge.

Hollingsworth's book paints a vivid picture of the dark art and craft of Bell's media-manipulating. The one particularly disconcerting revelation is about Sir Tim's drug abuse, of which he is now cured, and the most mortifying is about flashing, for which he was convicted 20 years ago.

Last year, more than 3,000 biographies were commissioned by British publishers. Most will die a death, some will briefly flourish, a few will cause a stir. Only a handful will give authoritative, rounded images of their subject that put life's mishaps into context and will stay on the shelves. As Andrew Lownie, a leading literary agent, says: "Publishers want something salacious without being libellous and authorised without being too authorised."

So, in recent weeks, we have learned plenty we did not know about the sex lives of the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Stephen Spender. We also appreciate the penchant of Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, for mixing margarine with the tenants' butter when he was a London landlord. Not to mention Sir Tim Bell's old habits.

Autobiography - unless it is utterly frank and self-revealing - is out. As for Tory ministers who might be looking for a boost to their pension in a few weeks' time, they can forget it. Their memoirs are absolute non- starters, unless, like Alan Clark's Diaries, they bare their souls - and their libidos.

It is hard to get the recipe right in this form of literature. In Bell's case, he refused to co-operate at all, which is instructive behaviour from the public relations man. In his preface, Hollingsworth recounts how Bell pleaded to be left alone because he had small children: "I think that children should have their own private view of their parents and not have it presented to them in such a way that may not be accurate." As a modern biographer, Hollingsworth pressed on, regardless. Sadly, like many modern biographies, his book will be remembered for the titbits it uncovered rather than, as it should be, for giving a fascinating insight into the methods of a powerful public relations man.

Such is the vogue for biography that ways of getting the recipe mix right are now taught on at least two academic literature courses. Once, aspiring writers learned how to produce the best-selling, bodice-ripping novel; these days, it is the blockbuster biography.

The marketing men in the publishing business have identified biographies as a way of drawing men into bookshops. Women, apparently, prefer fiction, men go for facts. Unlike a novel, however, a good biography does not come cheap and publishers will pay an advance only if they are confident of selling serialisation rights. That way their costs are covered, regardless of sales. In order to obtain serialisation, they must be guaranteed sensation. "The pressure is on to find salacious material," says Lownie.

While the number of biographies in the catalogues is soaring, the number of copies they sell is no longer the major part of some publishers' thinking. At least two firms have established themselves in recent years through the device of paying their authors nothing at all, selling the book to the tabloids and sharing the serialisation proceeds. Their books are easy to spot: gangsters' memories; anonymous soldiers' accounts of their exploits; the private lives of boxers. Their authors are little more than glorified tabloid feature writers, producing similar material and eventually occupying the same newspaper pages.

Newspapers, especially tabloid ones, and publishers operate at a different pace. Give them a sniff of a story and they want it today. Tomorrow, they can just manage. Tell them it will take a year or two to research, and they will shrug and lose interest. Forget the full portrait: all they want is the extra-marital affairs and the serial bonking, and they want them now.

Even more rewarding than the tabloid extract is the TV tie-in. The success of Channel 4's Secret Lives series has created an appetite for picking apart legends, for giving them, in tabloid speak, a "right going over". For television, the biography is a dream. Researched by someone else, cheap and quick to shoot, with a few faces and library footage. Easy money.

After spending years in the shadow of novelists, the biographer has emerged as king of the publishing scene. In some cases, they sometimes seem to be bigger than their subjects. All the talk in the book world is of "the next Glendinning, the next Forster, the next Holroyd". Trollope, du Maurier and Shaw, their latest three subjects, barely rate a mention.

The way things are going, future generations will look back on this period and not have the lives of major novelists or playwrights to chronicle but biographers.