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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 12:04 GMT 13:04 UK
Hot off the press before they're cold
Pope Benedict XVI's book, Values in a Time of Upheaval
The book trade is set for an influx of Pope editions
The first new biography of the late Pope hits the shelves on Thursday. It's just the latest example of the book industry chasing the tail of news events. But not everyone is happy.

What is billed as "the first biography" to tell Pope John Paul II's full story hits bookshelves on Thursday, less than two weeks after his funeral and with the new pontiff just moving in to his old apartments.

The book is one of what will undoubtedly grow to form a pile of profiles on offer in book stores - the latest instant response to the death of a public figure.

This book, says Colin Midson, at publishers Bloomsbury, was commissioned four years ago and set for publication in May, for the Pope's 85th birthday.

Unauthorised and 'unseemly'

But the speed at which it was brought forward demonstrates a slick operation as publishers make the most of technology to handle manuscripts in electronic form. Early release pushes planned promotion out of sync, but when 24-news channels and special newspaper supplements do the promotion job for free, that is no problem.

In the US Doubleday has already scheduled a biography of John Paul's successor, the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for May, along with a collection of the new Pope's writings.

The unauthorised biography is always a strange animal, whether the person is alive or dead
Larry Finlay

But it can be a gamble.

When broadcaster John Peel died suddenly in October 2004, the quick appearance of two unofficial biographies provoked protest.

His brother labelled the release of two books within six weeks of his death, in time for Christmas shopping, "unseemly ambulance chasing".

"The unauthorised biography is always a strange animal, whether the person is alive or dead," says Larry Finlay, managing director of Transworld, which is due to publish the official version of John Peel's biography, Jesus Wasn't Made Of Fish, in October.

"The John Peel one felt a bit tacky because everyone knew his autobiography was coming but sadly he was unable to finish it.

Pope candles
Other industries make the most of the marketing window

"The family was upset - they felt 'thanks, but no thanks, this isn't what John would have wanted'."

"The Pope is a rather different scenario - he was 84 and had been ill for a long time - like the Queen Mother's obituary, people have been writing it for the last 40 years."

Some industry-watchers feel publishing is doing its job by keeping the customer satisfied.

"It's fine that books appear instantly," says Roger Tagholm, deputy editor of trade paper Publishing News. "There will always be those who say that it's ambulance chasing but there's an immediate interest in whoever's just died - quickly producing a book services that interest.

It is standard practice, he says, for publishers to have books ready to go, just as newspaper obituaries are crafted in advance.

Yes, people are interested because that person has passed away, but it's not necessarily a bad thing
Roger Tagholm
Publishing News

"We increasingly live in a news dominated world, people want to know about everything instantly," he says, but adds: "There is something to be said for books that appear later, that give a more considered account of somebody's life once all the hysteria has died down."

The books are part of an explosion in biographies, where more people release their life story in serialised instalments, chapters added as the action happens.

In sport, stars like Martin Johnson, Matthew Pinsent and Kelly Holmes tie release dates into World Cup or Olympic success.

It is sensible marketing, says Mr Tagholm, when "people fly up like fireworks and then disappear, so they need to get their autobiography out when they are up there in the sky."

And it is not just the book trade that treads on the pallbearers' coat-tails.

"It happens in the music industry - the artist dies and you will see that CD brought to the front of HMV and Virgin," says Tagholm. "Yes, people are interested because that person has passed away, but it's not necessarily a bad thing."

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