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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Meerkat cult inspires hunt for quirky Christmas Bestseller

Publishers wait to see which offbeat title heads the yuletide bestsellers list
 Meerkats have inspired a cult which saw books on fictional animals top the Christmas bestsellers list. Photograph: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images 
When Meerkats Turn Bad; 101 Uses for a Dead Meerkat; Where's the Meerkat? – drawn by the success of last year's surprise Christmas hit, the fictional meerkat memoir The Simples Life, publishers have been piling into the market for meerkats in an attempt to find this year's quirky bestseller.

Jamie Oliver and the latest Guinness World Records look set to maintain their stranglehold on the UK's book charts in last few days before Christmas, but the search for an offbeat festive chart-topper remains an annual challenge for the UK's publishers, ever since Ben Schott scored with his Miscellany in 2002, and Lynne Truss found a big audience of grammar "sticklers" in 2003 with Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

"Those books made everyone stand up and say: 'Wow, there is a lot of money to be made here – let's try and publish something to capture imaginations and get sales to a similar level,'" said Philip Stone, charts editor of The Bookseller. Last year, he added, £37m was spent on humour books in the UK, with 40% of that figure arriving in December alone.

Despite publishers' efforts – When I Were a Meerkat is another of this year's 16 meerkat titles, while Knitted Meerkats is lined up for 2012 – just one meerkat book is in the book charts in the week before Christmas: Where's the Meerkat? which racked up sales of more than 20,000 copies in a week and sits ahead of titles by Jeremy Clarkson, Alan Sugar and Paul Scholes. "It's just meerkat madness," said Stone.

Along with Where's the Meerkat?, in 15th place and rising in The Bookseller's top 50, bookseller Foyles pointed to The Greatest Gift, Philip Van Doren Stern's 1943 novel on which It's a Wonderful Life was based, as an unexpected bestseller. "It's going very, very well indeed," said spokesman Jonathan Ruppin —and to The Etymologicon, a "circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language". Penguin's collection of local newspaper headlines, Whitstable Mum in Custard Shortage, is also selling well, the publisher said, while Waterstone's tipped Jack Seely's 1934 story of his thoroughbred war horse, Warrior, recently republished, as another dark horse.

"There's nothing at the level of Eats, Shoots and Leaves [but] you can't force those books – they come out of nowhere," said Waterstone's spokesman Jon Howells.

"Steve Jobs's biography, though, is one to highlight – I don't think anybody thought it would do as amazingly as it has done. It's outselling James Corden and Lee Evans for us. Jobs is obviously a massive figure but it's an incredibly fat biography of a businessman, and they don't always sell like that. Stone said a host of books based on terrible responses to exam questions — F in Exams, School Fail, Must Try Harder – were also selling strongly, but agreed with Howells that this year has seen no stand out quirky hit. "Publishers have been keen to grab a slice of the pie. In the last five years they've published more and more gifty books ... there are now more quirky books than ever before, and sales are being shared between all these different books so I think it's unlikely one will stand out this year."

At Foyles, Ruppin had a different explanation. "People want to buy decent books rather than something which gives them 10 minutes entertainment on Christmas Day and never gets looked at again," he said.

Alison Flood,

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