Rachel Johnson talks to Vernon Coleman, the one-man publishing sensation who has now turned his sights on the ‘lying little warmonger’ in Downing Street
If you’re a Telegraph reader — as I do hope you are — you too will have seen those ads placed by a Dr Vernon Coleman, MB. Not the ones that ask ‘Does Your Memory Fail You?’ above the ink drawing of the man in a suit and specs, but the ones that ask, even more worryingly, ‘Looking for a Present?’ Turns out, Dr Coleman has got the perfect present for just about everybody. For a golf lover, we have The Man Who Inherited a Golf Course, described as a ‘superb novel’ and ‘terrific present for anyone who enjoys golf,’ with 29,000 copies sold. For a cat lover, there is Alice’s Diary, a tome (over 51,000 sold) that describes a year in the life of a mixed tabby cat with ‘great humour and insight’. Then there is The Village Cricket Tour, a ‘marvellous present for all cricket lovers’ which will give ‘hours of pleasure’ and has apparently been compared — it does not specify by whom — with Three Men in a Boat. Over 34,000 copies sold. Last but not least, we have The Bilbury Chronicles, designed to appeal to lovers of rural life. ‘Over half a million readers have already discovered the joys of Vernon Coleman’s novels set in and around the fictional Devon village of Bilbury,’ the ad gushes. Only £12.95 in hardback!
You may snicker. You may titter over the man’s free use of unaudited sales figures and unattributed quotes. But do the math. The author, who stopped practising 20 years ago and resigned from the NHS over a matter of principle (he refused to put diagnoses on sick notes on the grounds that it breached patient confidentiality), must be making the sort of money that most professional writers can only dream of, and he doesn’t have an agent, a publisher, a distributor, or a heap of remaindered copies reminding him he never earned out his advance either, because he does all those jobs himself.
As a result, our doctor is completely independent, and can afford to stick two fingers up not only at medicine and mainstream publishing but also at Bush, Blair, Lord Hutton, those who want to surrender British sovereignty to a European superstate, the pharmaceutical industry, animal experimenters, Dr Atkins, Uncle Tom Cobley, and everyone who eats meat. For, as I have learnt, the man who supplies light, writing-by-numbers novels about moggies, pensioners and village pubs is, in fact, a fearless and mighty bow-tied crusader against all the above, and mock him at your peril.
Dr Coleman lives in Devon with a much younger wife, whom he refers to as ‘The Welsh Princess’ or ‘the totally adorable Welsh Princess Donna Antoinette’. (I think he is about 62). He likes to divide his output into four categories — cats, medicine, politics and animals, but claims that his devoted fans buy books across all categories. His one-man publishing industry started, he tells me, after he had been writing novels for imprints such as Pan and Penguin, but he knew he had a sure-fire winner on his hands when he had the idea to do a book in the voice of his own cat.
Curtis Brown, the agents did not like the pitch. They did not think there were enough people out there who really wanted to be told what Vernon’s pussy was thinking on a day-to-day basis. Of course, they were wrong. Coleman published it himself, and he says it sold 20,000 copies in one year, and has been reprinted five times. ‘I thought, hold on, this publishing lark isn’t as difficult as they make out,’ he says. ‘I knew nothing about marketing, but gradually learnt about it, and put these funny little ads in mags and newspapers.’ Do they work? I ask. ‘If you see an ad appear twice,’ Vernon tells me — and I can almost see the wink and tap on the side of the nose down the telephone — ‘you know it’s worked the first time.’
Thus Coleman developed his own inimitable approach to publishing. ‘Publishers always ask, “Is this going to be commercial?” My philosophy is,’ he explains, ‘if I really want to write it, then it will have some passion in it, and people will want to buy it.’ So he has scores of books under his belt, (on his website he claims to have written 90 books and sold two million). ‘Two million kitty-cat books?’ I hear you shriek. Well, look at it this way. The guy shows an unerring instinct for exploiting his readers’ fond indulgences and bucolic pastimes (village cricket, cats, golf) and their innermost anxieties (illness, death, war) and so why not?
Let us assume he has sold two million, then, and this is the thing that should have the government running a teensy bit scared, in my book. For Dr Coleman — who has written ‘A Doctor Writes’-type columns for the People and the Sun and has registered his own name as a trademark — is not only busily reprinting his own cat and cricket classics; he is now churning out books about the latest Gulf war and the threat to England and the fact that doctors kill more people than cancer, which goes to show that the man has breadth if not depth.
Last month a new advertisement appeared, this time on the Comment pages of the Telegraph, advertising one of two new additions to the Coleman oeuvre. In the time-honoured way, his new book, Rogue Nation, subtitled ‘how and why the USA threatens your home, family, health, freedom and future’, is given an unattributed rave review by anon: ‘Vernon Coleman’s startling new book contains everything you should know about America.’
Now, I’m not sure how this Coleman polemic squares up to the loci classici of anti-Bush lit, Stupid White Men and the lies and the lying liars book. He writes, it has to be said, in a slightly hectoring way, heavy on adjectives and light on supported fact — though when I challenge him on one of his assertions (that Americans kill children on death row, for example) he bristles and says everything he writes is God’s own truth. Still, I can’t help wondering what Janet Daley thought when she saw the Coleman ad nestling alongside her own column that day.
That day, she had chosen to dilate on the American dream in a piece headlined ‘Britons should learn to be like Americans’. In the piece, my colleague Janet, ‘an American born of an immigrant family’, tells us how Britain should become a nation of optimists and self-improvers, a place where people want the freedom to run their own lives, and take the responsibility for their own moral choices, from sea to shining sea, and so on. A lovely juxtaposition, I thought, the I-have-a-dream column alongside an ad that screamed ‘Rogue Nation — The scary truth about America’ in huge black letters. Sort of sums it up the post-9/11 dialectic, don’t you think?
And now, I see that very soon those of us who are still Looking For a Present, even after we’ve sent off for Rogue Nation, have yet another new title to add to our imperishable collection of Vernon Coleman bestsellers, his forthcoming book called Why Everything Is Going to Get Worse Before It Gets Better. Before you send your cheque to Barnstaple, you should know this is a screeching jeremiad against the forces of darkness in this country (as differentiated from the forces of darkness in Brussels and Washington and the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry).
‘Everyone in the country except Hutton knows that Blair is a lying little warmonger,’ Dr Coleman says. ‘The result [of the Hutton report] was that the rest of the nation — open-mouthed with disbelief — had to endure the smug, complacent and self-satisfied faces of the odious Blair and the equally odious Campbell demanding apologies they didn’t deserve.’ And so on. And all this from the man who writes whimsical kitty-cat diaries where he appears as ‘Upright in Trousers’ and the Welsh Princess is ‘Upright in a Skirt’.
Dr Coleman has made a good living out of knowing his own market, and has cleverly milked the willingness of little old ladies (or chicks with cats) to shell out for the latest in the life of his mixed tabby. And now the doctor’s prognosis is that his thousands of loyal, pet-loving elderly readers are sitting in their comfortable armchairs in the shires, ready to move cosily on from Tibbles to anti-war tirades. If I were Mr Blair I’d be afraid. Very, very afraid.