It ain't heavy, it's my book club

Book clubs have invigorated sales and created new literary stars - but at a price. As publishers and booksellers rush to cash in, Debbie Taylor reports on the rise of Lit Lite
Click to follow

The world of publishing and bookselling has turned upside down in little more than a decade. The traditional arbiters of literary success - fiction editors, prize judges, broadsheet book reviewers - have been replaced by a completely different set of people. The new literary arbiters are the central buyers of bookshop and supermarket chains and the controllers of the new media book clubs that have sprung up on TV, talk radio and in newspapers.

Yet despite a healthy increase in book sales, Waterstone's, Borders, W H Smith and the like have all seen their profits fall in recent months, squeezed by an ineluctable pincer movement. On one flank, they are up against supermarkets like Tesco, who buy a small number of titles in bulk and undermine the bookshops on price. On the other flank, they are pitted hopelessly against mighty Amazon, which is able to offer an almost limitless range of titles - far more even than would fit into the giant Waterstone's in Piccadilly.

One can hardly blame the booksellers for seeking to combine forces, streamline their activities and focus on sure-fire bestsellers and a reduced range of also-rans; leaving publishers to follow suit.

"All publishing houses are under pressure," says Anthony Beevor, ex-chair of the Society of Authors, "and they can reduce their costs only by squeezing the primary producers, the authors." Literary agent Pat Kavanagh agrees: "It's very, very tough at the moment," she told me. "Tougher than I've ever known it." Kavanagh specialises in literary fiction - clients she represents include Helen Simpson and Julian Barnes - and there is growing evidence that challenging novels with a minority readership are particular casualties of the rationalisation in the industry. "There's a lack of confidence in the market," confirms Lit Idol agent Jonny Geller. "It has been a long while since a big literary hope has emerged from nowhere."

It is more difficult to get literary fiction into print, but those books that are getting out there are being hyped like never before. And this is where it gets interesting. Because the kinds of books that are being chosen by the new literary arbiters are a very particular subset of literary fiction: challenging enough to satisfy the little grey cells of the committed "heavy book buyer", but not too off-putting to the intelligent Richard & Judy viewer who might only buy five books a year. It's a subset that I'm calling "Lit Lite". And it is big, big business.

Lit lite is the kind of book beloved of the reading group: sufficiently approachable and gripping to engage everyone, yet still offering something - some stylistic quirk, some moral dilemma, some social issue - for members to discuss when they meet.

In 2001 there were already an estimated 50,000 such groups in the UK. Multiply that by seven-plus members: now imagine them all shelling out for the same titles... Factor in the additional sales stimulated by nationwide readathons led by the Richard & Judy Book Club, the Daily Mail book club, the BBC's Big Read, and the result is sales of Lit Lite novels that easily rival those of the mass-market genre thriller and romance titles on the bestseller lists.

So what exactly is Lit Lite? Andrea Levy's Small Island, with its sassy dialogue and political-historical content (and sales of over half a million) is quintessential lit lite: a ripping yarn with lots of meaty issues to discuss. So is Yann Martel's Life of Pi, with its exotic setting and philosophical musings - and sales now nudging a million. Zadie Smith's Man Booker shortlisted On Beauty is another example.

Does Lit Lite imply the existence of its opposite, Lit Heavy? Yes, to some extent - through I'd prefer to use a less pejorative term, something that alludes to the complex pleasures of difficult literary fiction. These novels might be better termed "slow reads", the literary equivalent of "slow food", that takes time to savour, and appeals to a smaller, more committed, readership.

When a slow read wins a literary prize, sales do improve - but only modestly. When a Lit Lite novel wins, sales skyrocket as an already approachable book is given the stamp of literary approval.

"In commercial terns, getting on to the Richard & Judy Book Club probably means more than winning the Booker," comments Jon Wood, publishing director of fiction at Orion. The so-called "Richard & Judy effect", which is credited with upping book sales of its selected titles by £50 million since it started, has sent publishers scrambling for Lit Lite.

In many ways this is all extremely good news for women writers. Women read twice as much fiction as men and constitute the overwhelming majority of reading group members. If the books that are published and noticed are increasingly going to be those that women want to read and discuss, literary fiction by women will increasingly be taken more seriously.

But there is a down side. Though one might hope that this sudden appetite for lit lite will also ignite a taste for the gourmet slow read, it seems likely that minority tastes will no longer be catered for. The agent Peter Straus at Rogers, Coleridge and White agrees: "Everybody is being more cautious about books that are refreshing and surprising but won't necessarily do well straight away," he says.

Many years ago, after one glass too many at a party, I had a fierce argument with a literary editor about a book he admired. The book was Thru, an experimental novel by literary legend Christine Brooke-Rose. The book outraged me. I found it mind-bogglingly impenetrable; self-indulgent and elitist. It represented everything I hated about British culture at the time: its ivory towers, the alienation of its minorities and working class. I couldn't see what possible value this wilfully obscure little book might have; what good it could achieve - apart from further alienation of people I wanted to include.

But - Max Eilenberg, if you're reading this - I think I was wrong. Just as the militant outriders of feminism expand the boundaries of what women can be and achieve, so we writers need our literary pioneers and prophets: to keep the middle ground where most of us create as wide and diverse and fertile as it can possibly be.

This is an edited extract from 'The Rise of Lit Lite', taken from 'Mslexia', the magazine for women writers. To submit or subscribe to the magazine, call 0191 261 6656 or email