The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Someone once compared bestsellers to Darjeeling tea leaves — you use them once, may be twice and then toss them away. Those outside the publishing world believe that the fortunes of a publishing house are built on the tea leaves of a publisher’s list. You can safely bet that some publishers think so too. How else would they plan their forthcoming lists on the celebrity criteria or the latest fads'

Take a look at the lists over the past decade in Britain and the US — ours are essentially spin offs from theirs, with some torrid memoirs of the ex-big shots in government and elsewhere. In the US, the fiction list goes something like this: De Mille’s The Lion’s Game, Michael Crichton’s Timeline, Sharks’ A Walk to Remember, Patterson’s Pop Goes the Weasal; Krantz’s Soft Focus. And the non-fiction: Albon’s Tuesdays with Morrie, Philip’s Body for Life, Johnson’s Who Moved my Cheese', the dalai lama’s The Art of Happiness.

Britain’s list is much the same kind with some variations like Adrian Mole’s Cappucino’s Years; the Harry Potter series, some murder and mayhem like Frank Harris’s Hannibal. But the big question is what does it all add up to' More importantly, do bestsellers that come and go with amazing rapidity provide the sinews of a publisher’s list'

From the list it seems that life is a struggle between trying to achieve the perfect body before abandoning fleshy pursuits for the wisdom of the dying. The reality is that when the going gets tough, the tough escape into fiction. Clearly, fiction is a sub-division of the entertainment industry but the “show” must end up making you feel good, not miserable.

When the going gets tough in Britain, however, the tough get into the kitchen. Once there, Oliver’s The Naked Chef helps. Leading the pack, however, is Delia Smith’s How to Cook, a step-by-step guide, even the noted gourmand, Hannibal Lecter, might be drawn back to conventional ingredients.

With 5,000 Indian restaurants in Britain, Indian cookbooks are having a marvellous roll. And it is not just Punjabi cuisine that dominates,but regional dishes as well to cater to the vast Indian diaspora. You get mixed bags of dishes, easy to follow and of course beautifully packaged.

To the big question whether bestsellers provide the backbone of a publisher’s list, the answer is yes, to an extent, but largely no. Bestsellers are a shot in the arm to the perpetual cash crunch that publishers face. A burst of retail sales brings cash into the till that is not to be scoffed at in an industry that runs mainly on credit. But bestsellers disappear into thin air after all that sound and fury. After all, bestsellers are non-books, celeb books, packaged soap operas. Some, of course, stick around for a long time like the Canadian physical exercises, B.K.S. Iyengar’s Yoga and others. But these are deeply researched, worked at over time, constantly updated with each reprint and reset with fresh illustrations.

What provides the strength is the backlist — those books that reprint time and again over the years and on which the fixed costs have been taken care of in the first printing. It is here that real profits are made, not in the quickies that just come and go. Quality tells in the long run which restores our faith in scholarship.

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