Suzi Feay: So what's the best read? The answer's in grotty south London

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The Independent Culture

Is Amanda Ross the most influential woman in the book world right now? It's an unlikely proposition, given that she's the joint managing director of an independent TV company based in a grotty bit of south London. But since the overwhelming success of Richard & Judy's book club - responsible for two of the biggest-sellers of last year, The Lovely Bones, which probably would have made it without their help, and Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea, which certainly wouldn't - publishers are suddenly taking a very keen interest in what Amanda likes to read. The 2005 shortlist is out, and the fairly secretive process by which 10 titles have been whittled down from 301 submissions is clearly dominated by the formidable Cactus TV boss.

The impact on book sales last year was dubbed the "Richard and Judy" effect. O'Connor saw a 350% increase in sales - and Bob Geldof's fervent on- air endorsement ("Masterpiece!") can't have harmed. All the 10 books on the original list, bar one, showed a surge in sales, and the exception most definitely proves the rule: Monica Ali's Brick Lane was negatively received by the studio guests, by the book group panel, and by R&J themselves. Tough on Ali; but at least it showed that the bookclub strand is no bland exercise in puffy PR.

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The 2005 bookclub only started last week, but already their first choice, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, sold over 10,000 copies the week before the show aired, and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife, featured this Wednesday, sold just over 23,000 copies - probably because Judy Finnegan couldn't resist giving it an advance rave. I went over to the studios on Wednesday to watch the first programme go on air. It's often claimed that telly can't "do" books properly, but even those with a prejudice against sofas might be pleasantly surprised by the Richard & Judy approach. There's a short film of the author in an appropriate location - in Zafon's case, Barcelona - a vociferous discussion between the hosts and celebrity guests, then the verdict from a readers' group. "One of the three best books I've read in my life," said Richard, and a fusillade of "brilliants" came from the Scottish readers, one of whom, charmingly, had expressed deep dubiety over having to read a book in translation at all.

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"The whole point of a book club," said Amanda later, "is to persuade people to pick up books they wouldn't normally read." The other titles on the list, in order of transmission, are: The American Boy by Andrew Taylor (HarperPerennial), a historical novel featuring the young Edgar Allen Poe; Justin Cartwright's great novel The Promise of Happiness (Bloomsbury); Feel, Chris Heath's account of celebrity madness chez Robbie Williams (Ebury); The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler (Viking), in which assorted American autodidacts seek to illuminate their problems via their favourite author; David Mitchell's marvellous Cloud Atlas (Sceptre); The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick (Time Warner), a gripping thriller; Jodi Picoult's chilling and timely My Sister's Keeper (Hodder), about the morality of using one child as a genetic match for their sick sibling; and finally, Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson by Paula Byrne (HarperCollins), the story of the actress, poet, Royal mistress - and friend to Mary Wollstonecraft. One of these will go on to win the "Best Read" Award at the British Book Awards. This Wednesday, Julian Clary is on the sofa to discuss The Time Traveller's Wife (wonder if he'll be invited back to discuss his forthcoming memoirs, A Young Man's Passage?). That's got to be worth watching.

Richard & Judy, weekdays at 5pm, C4

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