Every book that features in their TV book club is an instant bestseller
From the Guardian:
When Joseph O’Connor’s The Star of the Sea, a novel about Irish refugees crossing the channel in 1847, came out in paperback in January, few expected it to trouble the bestseller charts unduly. “Everybody thought it would do fairly well,” says Nicholas Clee, editor of the Bookseller magazine, “but nobody thought it would get into the top 10.” O’Connor had been a respected, but not hugely successful, Dublin writer. But then something extraordinary happened. On January 21, The Star of the Sea was the second book to feature on Richard and Judy’s book club. During the Channel 4 programme, the couple’s guest, Bob Geldof, called the book “a masterpiece”. That night, Amazon.co.uk sold out of copies. The following week the book climbed from number 337 in the UK bestseller chart to No 1. Sales rose to 12,272 – up from 4,441 in the previous week. It has now sold 250,000 copies in paperback. “All this is directly attributable to Richard and Judy,” says James Herring, PR for the show. But he would say that, wouldn’t he?
“Lots of people were coming into the shop asking for The Star of the Sea in the days after the programme was shown,” says Madeleine Gair, manager of the Whitby bookshop in north Yorkshire. “It was just a spontaneous thing. Often they didn’t know the name of the author or the title, but they had heard it discussed on Richard and Judy and liked the sound of it. I was going to say that sales went through the roof but they didn’t, quite simply because we ran out and the book had to be reprinted several times. It was amazing really.”
Go to the Amazon.co.uk website and you can see something even more amazing. Scroll down the page devoted to The Star of the Sea. Just before the two-star review from Disappointed of Twickenham and the five-star rave from someone who couldn’t put the book down, there is a section called “Customers who bought this item also bought … ” And the ensuing list is composed of books that have featured on Richard and Judy’s book club since early January and ones that will be reviewed on the show in forthcoming weeks. Some people are clearly going to be buying all the 10 featured books which are prominently displayed in Richard and Judy-branded dumpbins in leading bookshop chains. It is as though a new demographic of readers has suddenly sprung into being – all of them galvanised into reading by one of the most derided couples on TV.
“Nobody thought Richard and Judy would have the kudos that would rub off with books like Oprah Winfrey has in the US,” says Clee. “Oprah’s book club has had a tremendous following in the States. But we were surprised that people who are watching television between 5pm and 6pm in the evening who, one would assume, are not core literary audiences, would have much effect on book sales.”
But they have, and it ill behoves the books industry to become too snooty about Richard and Judy’s impact on Britain’s reading habits. Toast, the memoir of provincial British culinary tastes by Observer food critic Nigel Slater, for instance, was the first book to be featured on Richard and Judy on January 14. Its sales jumped to 2,660 – more than double the previous weeks’ figure. Sales of Adriana Tigiani’s Lucia, Lucia, the romantic tale of a beautiful 25-year-old daughter of an Italian immigrant family in Greenwich Village, almost trebled the week after it was reviewed on the show, up from a paltry 361 in the previous week. On February 4, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane featured, and last week Starter for Ten, the debut novel of Cold Feet scriptwriter Dave Nicholls, was hailed by comedian Jenny Eclair as “a classic”. “I sniggered, snorted and hooted,” she said. Eclair hooted, Nicholls’s sales rocketed: sales went up by 1,000% in Waterstone’s; it went from number 337 before the show to 15 in the trade lists.
Last night, this week’s UK bestsellers chart disclosed that the top three – The Star of the Sea, Starter for Ten and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones – had all been on Richard and Judy’s book club. More intriguingly yet, Sebold’s book was only featured last night.
“We have definitely noted an uplift for all of the books but not an equal one,” says Fiona Buckland, senior books editor for Amazon.co.uk. “That’s probably because some of the books on Richard and Judy’s list – like Brick Lane, for instance – are in lots of people’s homes already. But it’s been the making of some books, particularly Starter for Ten and The Star of the Sea.
William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, The Know by Martina Cole, Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller and Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul complete the list.
The Richard and Judy book club was dreamed up by Amanda Ross, the programme’s executive producer and managing director of Cactus TV, which makes the show. “Please be nice about us,” she asked me last night. Why wouldn’t I be? “Some people might well be very derisory about Richard and Judy, saying, ‘What do they know about books?’ So we make a point of saying that the book club is for everyone.”
Where did the idea come from? “I was really keen to do a book club on TV and not some terribly esoteric discussion programme. I wanted to do something that was inclusive and would really broaden people’s horizons.”
Ross decided that the 10-week book club series would, each Wednesday afternoon, focus on a book published in the past year that was “a cracking read”. Publishers submitted 269 titles for consideration, which were whittled down to a shortlist of 50 by Ross and her team. Did Richard and Judy have any input into the choice of books? “Oh, yes. When we got down to the final 20, I gave them a synopsis of each book and they read them.”
This is very different from the grandmommy of all TV book clubs, Oprah Winfrey, who claims to personally select her book of the week. But then she also benefits financially from the sales. “That can’t happen here,” says Ross, “because it would be against Ofcom regulations. You can only talk about things on TV when you’re not benefitting from them financially.”
Indeed what is striking about the book club is that the invited guests don’t pull their punches. Last night, for instance, TV presenter Anne Diamond was hostile about The Lovely Bones, saying that it wasn’t as profound as others have suggested.
“When they reviewed Lucia, Lucia,” says Ross, “Judy loved it and Richard hated it. But he could express his opinion easily because we’ve decided not to have the author in the studio as Oprah does. Instead, they make a little film we show at the beginning. The aim is to produce a TV package that gives viewers a proper critique, and to let the people have their say.”
The current series of the club is due to end on March 24, although viewers are already voting for which of the 10 books should win the “Richard & Judy’s Best Read” award, to be presented at the National Book Awards on Good Friday in April, to be televised on Channel 4.
Of all the initiatives aimed at stopping Britons becoming a nation of goggle-eyed TV-watching couch potatoes and transforming them into a nation of goggle-eyed book-reading couch potatoes, Richard and Judy’s book club is arguably, and surprisingly, the most radical. “One of my favourite bits is seeing real people saying they would never have picked up this book,” says Ross. “When you look at The Big Read [the BBC’s poll of the greatest novel of all time] they really shot themselves in the foot by doing classic books.” There are no fixed plans to continue the Richard and Judy book club after March, though Ross is devising a summer reads version and reckons it could become an annual series. “One reason we don’t want it to run all year is that we’re concerned people will be block-buying all 10 books and going into debt.
One intriguing question is whether featured authors will get as sniffy as Jonathan Franzen did when he asked to be taken off Oprah’s list. Reportedly, the author of The Corrections had been muttering that some of her previous choices were sentimental tripe while his own novel should be seen “solidly within the high-art literary tradition”.
Nobody has so far balked at having their ouvrage traduced by rubbing up against Richard, Judy or some of the trashier books on the list. This is traditionally a quiet time of year for book sales – Christmas tokens have been spent, personal debt is high – and anything that keeps books flying off the shelves is a good thing. In that cold climate, even the literati need to bend the knee just a little bit to Mr Madeley and Ms Finnegan, whatever their previous opinion of them. Read article on the Guardian site
This is something that I find disturbing. First of all, as you know, I love books, love reading, and run a book group, so that’s not why I find it disturbing. I’m all for people reading and for more TV time for books in general. What I do find disturbing is how many people hang on their every word, so much so that they just need to mention a book for it to become an instant bestseller. What’s even more disturbing is that it’s a self-perpetuating monster. Richard and Judy mention book on show > book enters top 10 > people visit bookstore looking for something to read > go look at top 10 books on the chart (probably all Richard and Judy books) and think “these are in the top 10, they must be good” > customers buy more R & J books ensuring they remain in the top 10… and so it continues. These books are in that position not by their own merit at all but merely by getting a mention on a daytime lifestyle show by two people who I’m not really sure have read the books at the time that they start promoting them. That’s what’s disturbing.