It is, if Noddy Holder is to be believed, Christmas. And so those of us who pen trivia books listen for the ring of tills or, as is increasingly the case these days, for clicks on Amazon’s ‘Add to Basket’ icon. Will our offering be the one bulging the stockings this year? Will the royalties tide us through another few months? And even if they do, what is the long-term future for the trivia book in an age when so many factoids (TM Steve Wright in the Afternoon) are freely available on the internet? The subject is one I discussed recently in a Covent Garden pub with some elves. Some QI elves.
Yes, these creatures really do exist. They’re not just names invented to pad out the credits on BBC2. So that they can move more easily among us they take human form, and have developed a tolerance to alcohol, though rather than snacking on crisps in the pub they nibble torn-up pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica. As well as making Stephen Fry look clever on the telly (in real life he dribbles a lot and can barely spell his own name), they’re also responsible for QI’s books. The first, The Book of General Ignorance, has now sold well over a million copies. This year they bring us 1227 QI Facts to Blow Your Socks Off. For 1225 of them you’ll have to offer coin of the realm, but I am prepared to reveal here that the water in the mouth of a blue whale weighs more than its body, and that Saddam Hussein’s bunker was designed by the grandson of the woman who built Hitler’s bunker.
Will people still be willing to pay for books of this stuff, I ask, when their Twitter timelines vibrate with it all day long? Three of us present – Chief Elf John Lloyd (founder of the QI empire), John Mitchinson and I – grew up in a webless world, where once you’d finished that week’s library book and that day’s newspaper there was literally nothing left to read. We all remember the desperation of poring over the back of the cereal packet (‘actually I still like to read cereal packets,’ says John Mitchinson). We saw the regular purchase of books as a vital part of life, as crucial to our well-being as the regular purchase of food. But these days ‘content’, as the modern jargon has it, is freely available, and I do mean ‘freely’. This is a reality that has finished record companies (John Lloyd has a friend whose 20 year-old daughter has never paid for a piece of music in her life) – could it finish publishers? And if so, could the first weak point in their armour be the trivia book?
‘These books are often called loo books,’ says James Harkin, one of the younger elves, ‘and I bet a lot of people read their phones on the loo. If they’re reading trivia on those phones – whether on Twitter or the web in general – then yes, I suppose that could have an impact on sales.’
I take James’s words very seriously, because he has been introduced to me by one of the other elves, Anne Miller, as ‘James Who Knows Everything’. As Anne herself has already amazed me with her knowledge – for instance the fact that in Japan Tintin is called Tantan, because the Japanese would pronounce Tintin ‘chin chin’ and that means ‘penis’ – this is an introduction that intimidates. I’m seriously tempted to ask James for the result of tomorrow’s 2.30 at Kempton Park, but he continues with:
‘We shouldn’t get too depressed, though – “1227 Facts” is currently the number one paid book on Kindle. I think people will still give money for this sort of book.’
A slight complication is that the Kindle version currently costs 20p, and no one’s going to get rich on that sort of pricing. Also we talk in the week when 1227 Facts is predicted to be one of the most shoplifted books of the year, albeit because of middle-class recessional despair rather than generational change. Leaving those concerns aside, though, John Lloyd sees grounds for optimism. ‘For a start a lot of people buy this sort of book as gifts, so that’s a big market that isn’t going to go away. But the deeper point is that an awful lot of loo books aren’t worth buying. Many of them are opportunistic crap. The great ones, though, are treasured possessions.’
John Mitchinson agrees. ‘My children still love conventional books. And John’s right to mention what’s actually in the book. I’d like to think that we produce superior loo books. If it’s well put together and properly researched and so on, then people will still pay.’
I hope he’s right on this. And – hoping this isn’t just the hope talking – I also think he’s right. The best trivia books give you something that can’t be found on internet lists of ‘20 Amazing Facts’. Not only are half those ‘facts’ wrong, the 10 that are right are the same 10 recycled from a thousand other websites. A great trivia book – Schott’s Miscellany, for example – is usually the product of a curious mind (or minds) fed on diverse biographies, countless documentaries, a whole panoply of different sources, from which it plucks only the juiciest, most interesting facts. I wouldn’t claim the greatness of Schott or QI, but what I loved about compiling my latest book (I Didn’t Get Where I Am, published under my pseudonym Charlie Croker) was the opportunity to do the same thing. For instance learning that Jenson Button practises for every Grand Prix by driving an imaginary lap of the circuit seated on an inflatable gym ball and making all the appropriate noises, I put it next to the fact, long-treasured in my memory, that Fred Astaire practised each dance until he could perform it while reading a book.
This ‘bizarre neighbours’ characteristic is highlighted by Susie Dent, editor of the fantastic new edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. (I speak to her separately from the QI Elves – being the queen of Countdown’s Dictionary Corner she is a Channel 4 person, and so forbidden to drink with Beebers.) ‘Brewer’s gives you the most wonderful juxtaposition of different entries, many of which are entirely unnecessary but utterly compelling,’ she says. ‘I’d say this is what makes it worth buying. I do think it’s one of the few reference works – miscellanies aside – which give you that quirky ride across a vast terrain.’ Susie is happy to accept the label ‘loo book’ for Brewer’s. Certainly that’s where my copy resides, and where I have been delighted to learn, among much else, that the rack was once known as ‘the Duke of Exeter’s daughter’ (he introduced it to England in 1447) and that the Duma got its name because the word is Russian for ‘to consider’. Neighbouring entries, you’ll have noticed from the ‘Du-’ in each, and all the more pleasing because of that.
It takes care and wit and individuality to compile a top-notch trivia book. Those are qualities that require time and effort, and for which readers will carry on being happy to pay, if this small and unscientific poll of trivialists proves correct. As the Chinese nearly say – may we live in Quite Interesting times.