This from the Times
In 2002, Jonathan Cape published Joseph O’Connor’s novel The Star of the Sea. It was highly regarded, and by January 2004 had sold 14,000 copies in paperback. Then it became one of the 10 books on the Richard & Judy Book Club’s first list. It sold out. Unsure of the demand, Cape printed another 15,000. It then found it had back orders for 75,000. The book finally sold 600,000 copies. “It was,” says Dan Franklin, head of the publisher, “a revelation.”
Franklin admits that, like many other “literary snobs”, he had regarded the start of a book club by daytime television’s supernormal couple with mild derision and not-so-mild scepticism. The audience didn’t read and, if they did, they restricted themselves to Jeffrey Archer and ghosted packs of lies by barely human celebrities. O’Connor’s, however, was a real book, as were others on that list – William Dalrymple, Alice Sebold – and R&J were shifting them like Tesco burgers. In fact, they were shifting them on a scale unprecedented in the long and undistinguished history of book-promotion scams. They were changing the entire market.
Four years and many real books later, the R&J Book Club accounts for 26% of the sales of the top 100 books in the UK, and Amanda Ross, the club’s creator and book selector, is the most powerful player in British publishing. Now, though, the club faces a crisis. Richard & Judy are ending their early-evening run on Channel 4 and moving to a new UKTV channel. Can the club survive the shift from a terrestrial to a cable channel?
Richard Madeley thinks so: “We are taking the whole book-club shebang with us. I do think it’s taken on a life of its own. If we’d decided to take a step back from television and put the club online, I have a feeling it would do pretty well. I haven’t seen Loyd Grossman on television for years, but his sauces are bestsellers. He has established his own brand. The book club is similar to that.”
More tentatively, Ross agrees: “If the move had happened earlier, it would have affected the book club. But this is a new channel on UKTV, and it will be on the first page of the electronic programme guide. After 10 years, I think the club has a life of its own. What we need is the support of the retailers. If they keep faith and the books are still in the shops, then people will still buy them because they have Richard & Judy stickers.”
Now is the time to ask: is the club a good thing?
Publishers are too discreetly self-interested to say that it isn’t, but there are problems. Franklin points out that it does not generate loyalty to an author. Readers buy the list, but don’t continue to buy the authors. Agents and authors expecting a huge advance for the book after an R&J listing may be disappointed. Furthermore, it narrows the market. The list is so potent that it downgrades other titles to also-rans and reduces the possibility of the serendipitous discovery. It is one more way in which marketing is dominating literature. In this climate, would an unknown from nowhere, such as Joseph Conrad, stand a chance?
The big achievement of the club was to provide trusted guidance through the jungle of hyped books. Such guidance was not provided by the likes of Book Club Associates, which advertise in magazines. They offer broad selections to their members. As a result, their businesses are in decline. They lack anything like the firm imprimatur of a Richard & Judy. Book promotions didn’t really work, either. Prizes, in particular, suffered from an inherent bias towards the nebulous concept of the literary.
“I don’t know what ‘literary’ means,” Ross says. “I got really slagged off for that. But you shouldn’t be made to feel you have to be a certain type of person, with a certain level of education, to read a certain type of book. We have inspired people to read different kinds of books, and the sole criterion is that they are enjoyable.”
The use of the word “literary” to define a book indicates a deep chasm between popular storytelling and high culture, a chasm unknown to Dickens and Shakespeare. Books shortlisted for the Man Booker or the Costa may do well, but they stand little chance of breaking through into the mass market. Furthermore, the British book business is, to a rough approximation, incompetent. Since the abolition of retail price maintenance, power has shifted from the publishers to the bookshops, and they, in turn, have aggregated into a few big chains, primarily the near monopoly of Waterstone’s. This has made publishers absurdly timid in their approach to marketing.
“They have such a primitive idea about marketing,” Ross says. “I knew nothing about publishing. It is an incredible industry, full of really nice people, much nicer than television. But the thing that surprised me is that they all want their products to be exactly the same. I don’t know about you, but I never want to read the same book twice. Their covers were really similar. If there was a successful book, they put the same cover on other books so people would think they were buying the same book twice.” She was also shocked to discover that publishers were made to pay for display slots in shops. If you see top picks in a bookshop, don’t be fooled: the only picking process is money.
The bookshops have also been apeing the record industry by pulling titles the minute they don’t sell. “A few years ago, they stopped giving books enough time in shops,” Ross says. “Books tend to be word-of-mouth. It’s not like buying an album, going home and listening to it in an hour. By the time you found a book you liked and recommended it to your friends, it had been removed from the shops.”
This business needed Ross. She runs her production company, Cactus TV, with her husband, Simon, Jonathan Ross’s brother, and masterminded the brilliant recreation of Richard & Judy on Channel 4. She is – some would say this is an oxymoron – a well-read Essex girl. The reading she reels off to me – Austen, Black Beauty, Hardy, Armistead Maupin – is solid and unpretentious. She admits she doesn’t really get on with poetry; language for the sake of it is not to her taste. Above all, she likes stories.
The club chooses its Best Reads and the somewhat lighter Summer Reads. Ross receives about 1,000 titles for the first and 700-800 for the second. From this pile, 18 books have to be selected for the two lists. Each imprint is allowed to submit six books. Richard & Judy read only the final selection. This phase induces serious head-clutching among the publishers. “In your bones, you know what they will take and what they won’t,” Franklin says. “Putting the wrong book in for the book club is a nightmare – that way madness lies.”
The format of the club was carefully balanced by Ross. “We knew it wouldn’t work in the same way as Oprah’s – we needed more criticism. Oprah is too sugary. She has the author in the studio and is never critical about the books.” With a small team, Ross reads at least a couple of chapters and the synopsis of every book to get down to a shortlist. There is then an intensive phase of reading, with some sleepless nights.
Ross gets anxious about choosing the wrong book, knowing disappointed readers would turn away from the club: “I hope they never think it’s a waste of time when they finish it.” And it is all down to her. She makes the final choice; neither her team nor Richard and Judy are involved.
Her confidence in her instincts has grown with the success of the club. At first, this was lacking. She regrets putting Monica Ali’s Brick Lane in the first list. It was a book she didn’t like, but felt had to be included. In the event, Richard and Judy didn’t like it either. She can also be blindsided by the process itself. On the show, celebrities review the books she has chosen. Tony Robinson was one of the celebs chosen to review Martin Davies’s The Conjuror’s Bird, a book she loved. So, apparently, did Robinson when talking to the researcher. On screen, though, he trashed it. His negativity took Richard and Judy aback, and it seriously damaged sales. Most of her choices, however, are guaranteed blockbusters.
Keeping herself pure is Ross’s trick. She has turned down offers from publishers to start her own imprint, and can’t see herself leaving television. She doesn’t make money out of the club – she is not allowed to by Channel 4 rules – and she doesn’t let herself get too close to the hype machine. One overexcited publicist delivered a book to Cactus dressed as the book: “It took us ages to get them to understand we didn’t go for that kind of thing.”
Richard and Judy, meanwhile, are more than happy with their role as front men for the Amanda lists. Madeley, in particular, regards the whole thing as sweet revenge on the journalist Polly Toynbee.“Although it hasn’t quite strangled that ghastly snobbish dragon that’s been breathing fire on us since we started, it has pretty much laid it to rest,” he says. “It used to be that Judy and I were tarnished by the lie that daytime television was for stupid people. Polly Toynbee wrote a huge article about it 15 years ago, and we were very much at the heart of the attack. I won’t say what my own IQ is, but Judy is extremely bright, able to hold her own in any environment intellectually, and I’m not that much of a slouch. And there we were, being painted as thick, candyfloss-brained twits who dribbled for a couple of hours each day on television to people more stupid than we were. The club has nailed the lie that it was stupid television for stupid, workshy people with slipped discs.”
The point is irrefutable. Their club has shifted books by William Boyd, David Mitchell, Julian Barnes and many others. The lists can officially be used by teachers to select A-level reading. Above all, the sales of these proper books suggest their viewers are not the knuckle-dragging proletarians so despised by left-wing commentators.
The team of Ross, Finnegan and Madeley has conquered an industry. Nobody is complaining. The mystery of how to sell decent books consistently has eluded publishers and booksellers. The R&J Book Club has cracked it, for now. The move to UKTV may reduce their power; it may leave room for another, similar operation (a good thing if it widens the market), but, for the moment, daytime television, in the form of motherly Judy and wild-eyed Richard, has saved the book from the qualms and snobbery of the bien-pensants. It is hard not to laugh and obligatory to applaud.