Never judge a book by its clubbers

Richard and Judy were derided for attempting to intellectualise daytime television, but the success of their Book Club means publishers are now desperate to be part of their literary circle. Oliver Bennett reads up on the facts
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Last winter, Joseph O'Connor was enjoying a moderate success with his book, The Star of the Sea. "It had been well reviewed and won a couple of awards," says the Dublin-based author. "It was selling solidly enough." Then, in January, the book was featured on a television programme. "The UK demand for it just soared," he says. "Its effect on sales was astounding. It reached number one on the bestseller lists, and has remained on the list for 22 weeks to date. Between Britain and Ireland, its sales are now at over half a million. To say that this exceeds my wildest hopes for the novel would be an understatement."

The magic programme that rocketed the book up the bestseller charts didn't even feature those arts mandarins Melvyn Bragg, Mark Lawson or Alan Yentob. Rather, it was hosted by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, the saucy, perma-tanned First Couple of sofa television. Curiouser still, the show aired at 5pm on a Wednesday, a daytime slot called "shoulder peak" in TV jargon.

Of the 10 titles featured in the first series, nearly all took off. Nigel Slater's Toast more than doubled sales. David Nicholls' Starter For Ten experienced an 871 per cent hike. The series culminated with the debut of the Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year prize at the British Book Awards, voted by viewers. The winner, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, has now sold well over a million copies.

Now, the Richard & Judy juggernaut is on the road again. Earlier this month, the show launched its "Summer Read": six "lighter" books for holiday reading. "It's a shorter list," says Madeley, "but we think that all six novels are quintessentially good reads. What is really rewarding is to see so many people who don't normally buy books going into shops and asking for all six." And of course, the new list has already turbo-boosted sales. "Some of the books have seen their sales rocket by 1,000 per cent," adds Finnigan. "So yet again, we've nailed the myth that people who watch daytime TV are by definition lacking in brain cells."

What is their magic ingredient? For it would seem that R&J mobilises the rump of British readers. Sure, the Booker, Whitbread and Orange awards shift product, but if a Publishing News survey is to be believed, an astonishing 1.8 million people have picked up books as a result of R&J exposure. "In terms of immediate impact on sales, nothing tops Richard & Judy," says Scott Pack, chief buyer at Waterstone's. "It's wonderful for the industry," adds Joel Rickett of The Bookseller.

The R&J Book Club is the brainchild of Amanda Ross of Cactus, Richard and Judy's production company (dynasty note: Ross co-runs Cactus with her husband Simon Ross, brother of Jonathan). And her inspiration came from the UK's 15,000 reading groups, and Oprah Winfrey's Book Club in the US. "I'd seen the Oprah effect, and thought it could happen here," says Ross. "At first, Channel 4 was reticent, but then I was approached by the British Book Awards to televise it. I thought, let's link to book clubs."

The Rosses designed a 10-week Book Club feature, the idea being to focus on a "cracking read" published in the past year, and they cranked out a credible list. "The first was a nightmare," says Ross. "I knew that all the critics and trade were going to be watching. We had to define it carefully, and we had to have something for everyone." She took different genres - autobiography, history, comedy, literary fiction - and came up with a list that included White Mughals by William Dalrymple, Brick Lane by Monica Ali and Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller. "Eyebrows were raised," recalls Ross. But no one could write them off as "airport" novels. "The list was remarkably broad, and I think it surprised a lot of observers," says O'Connor.

Including, apparently, the heavies. "The list was not particularly lowbrow," says David Horspool of the TLS. "It wasn't John Grisham, for instance." Thomas Jones of the London Review of Books adds: "Perhaps the list of books could have been more inspiring, and Richard and Judy are unlikely to unmask the latest Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow, but it's the quality end of easy reading." Even George Walden, the author and scourge of cultural populism, finds nothing sinister in the R&J effect. "The greatest danger of such programmes is condescension," he says. "But if they throw up a more demanding readership, then fine."

For the purposes of the show, the Book Club starts with a report from the author whose book is in discussion, before cutting back to the studio where two targeted celebrities talk to Richard and Judy about their impressions of the literature in question. Bob Geldof spoke about Star of the Sea, Meera Syal discussed White Mughals, and Nigella Lawson, naturally, appraised Toast. The show then invites comments from real-life book clubs. "A lot of book TV consists of people talking esoterically in dim studios late at night. We wanted something different," says Ross.

This approach is informal, inclusive and inestimably powerful. "Publishers know that nothing sells a book like 'word of mouth'," says O'Connor. "The R&J book show seems more like a televised discussion among mates, the kind you might have with a colleague over coffee. It's intelligent, but it doesn't talk down to people. Its relaxed feel is precisely the reason it works." Joel Rickett agrees. "It's not dumbed down, nor a bunch of intellectuals trying to score points." He has heard a few "snobby comments here and there", but they haven't had any negative impact. Instead, the club helps the public to navigate a path through the 120,000-odd books published each year. It may even put to bed the notion that popularity is somewhat vulgar: "There is still a certain breed of literary soul who regards sales of 11 copies as a reliable indicator of merit," says O'Connor. "My experience as a reader would tend to tell me the opposite."

Another factor, adds O'Connor, "is the honesty of the presenters and guest reviewers. They won't plug books if they don't like them". For instance, Monica Ali's book ran into difficulties on the show. "It was hard to find any celebrities who were positive about Brick Lane," says Ross. Richard and Judy found it "turgid". Funnily enough, the book didn't show an R&J effect.

For many, it still involves an imaginative leap to think of Richard and Judy as literary taste-makers. Madeley and Finnigan came to the public eye in 1988 with the ITV show This Morning, and hosted it for 13 years, with chat, makeovers, health, cookery and fashion - and books. "The 'R&J effect' started long before the Channel 4 Book Club," says Ross. "For a long time, Richard and Judy have discussed four or five books a week. The difference is that now, they are in the eye of the intelligentsia."

Ross has a team of five people devoted to books at Cactus, and has an independent adviser for the show who remains anonymous. "They're smart, open-minded, focused - and extremely well-read," says O'Connor. The team have a policy of ditching books that don't grab them in the first two chapters, and operate ruthless subjectivity. "A lot is my own personal taste," says Ross. "Take Star of the Sea. I wanted a classic that had been overlooked; that hadn't sold itself."

Of the new Summer Read six, PS, I Love You, by Cecelia Ahern, has been particularly criticised. "Gerry dies before the start and the rest [of the characters] die on the page", and, "Akin to a secondary-school essay", being two such public denunciations. "I was predisposed to hate it myself," says Ross. "The proof had an awful bright-pink cover. She's Bertie Ahern's daughter and there had to be connections. But, when I started reading it, I couldn't stop, and I cried. It just goes to show: you can't judge a book by its pink cover."

Another factor of the Richard & Judy effect is that it brings readers, and returning readers, to books. "It's fabulous," says Julia Strong of the National Literacy Campaign. "Television is a popular medium and using it to promote reading is important." Ross agrees that this is part of the show's grass-roots power. "We know that it gets people reading who have never read before," she says. "Recently, we heard from a man of 60 who hadn't read a book for 40 years, but had enjoyed A Gathering Light on the Summer Read list, and said, 'Now I'm going to read loads of books'."

Just as Delia Smith showed people how to cook, the R&J show may become an entry point for non-readers. ("If it is, I find that worrying," says George Walden. "We've had compulsory universal education for 100 years, and if we think that it's good that people read at all, then God help us.")

Oddly, over the Pond, Oprah Winfrey's book club has changed. Jonathan Franzen famously insisted that his The Corrections be removed from her literary circle, and she herself has claimed that it has "become harder to find books that I feel compelled to share". She now plugs the classics, and has recently sent Anna Karenina to the top of the bestseller list.

"The key difference between Oprah and us is that she makes money out of it," says Ross. "Ofcom rules mean that we can't make any money. So we are more critical, less mass-market. It can't help but have an influence if you've going to make money." So far, the R&J show hasn't had a Franzen moment. "Zoë Heller was slightly bemused, as she'd been out of the country and didn't realise that Richard and Judy had metamorphosed," says Ross. She does now.

Meanwhile, the club is smudging the boundaries between literary and commercial fiction "There are influential people in the publishing industry who understand what's happening," says Ross. "Take Gail Rebuck of Random House, who has an incredibly wide and varied selection of authors, from esoteric to 'gold block'. She told me that R&J had awakened them to the fact that you can have a massive hit with a history book."

Ross is soon to work on the next Book Club list, and the industry is beating a path to her door to get their titles included. She is constantly asked to extend the Club all year round, and from next January, she is increasing the list to include 12 books. But she is concerned not to dilute the effect.

The net result has not only been good for books - Richard and Judy's careers have taken a huge surge in credibility, as has the whole derided notion of daytime TV. No longer may we write it off as cheap makeover telly for the welfare-dependent. Indeed, no longer can television be written off as a medium that inhibits reading. These days, it seems the opposite is true.

THE BEACH-TOWEL BOOK LIST

The Mermaid and the Drunks

Ben Richards (Phoenix, £6.99)

A politically charged novel set in Chile from Richards, who has written four London-based novels, and contributed to the New Puritans anthology. The title comes from a poem by Pablo Neruda.

Liars and Saints

Maile Meloy (John Murray, £7.99)

A debut novel by American Meloy, who draws the Californian saga of four generations of the Santerre family, from the Second World War to the present.

A Gathering Light

Jennifer Donnelly (Bloomsbury, £6.99)

Set in turn-of-the-19th-century America, around the Adirondack mountains, this is a coming-of-age story featuring a 16-year-old heroine, Mattie Gokey, who wants to be a writer, with a murder mystery woven in.

Hunting Unicorns Bella Pollen (Pan, £7.99)

Chick-lit comedy in which an American journalist is sent to England to report on the decline of the upper class, and becomes embroiled with an eccentric aristocratic family.

PS, I Love You

Cecelia Ahern (HarperCollins, £10.99)

As the 22-year-old daughter of the Irish PM, Ahern's book has done well commercially, but has inevitably garnered criticism. "A love story from beyond the grave", it's the story of a couple, and what happens when one of them dies.

Want To Play?

P J Tracy (Penguin, £6.99)

A crime thriller, this starts with the murder of an old couple in a small US town, then turns into a search for a serial killer. PJ Tracy is the pseudonym of a mother-daughter writing team from Minneapolis.

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