Uncertain shoppers needing help to find an entertaining read this weekend might be glad of the recommended titles displayed prominently in their local bookshop.
Visitors to the WH Smith branch in south Hampstead, north London, for example, will be grateful to be steered towards Armistead Maupin's The Night Listener.
Smith's, in common with most big book retailers, gives certain books special prominence on the basis that they have been recommended by readers from their own staff.
What the typical shopper may not realise is that publishers will have paid thousands of pounds to have their titles awarded the recommendation. The going rate for a book to be displayed as a "Read of the Week" in WH Smith is £10,000. Retailers and publishers are notoriously reluctant to confirm the price list, but similar categories in Books etc and Borders are thought to cost as much as £2,500.
The online retailer Amazon has not denied reports that its "Book of the Month" endorsement carries a £6,000 price tag, and its "Latest Thing" tag costs £15,000. Cheap in comparison, Ottakar's charges £1,000 for a "Book of the Month".
The charges have become common practice in the industry but are attracting growing criticism from smaller publishers, who may not be able to absorb the costs as easily as the bigger competitors. Even some staff in the main publishers have complained that readers are being "manipulated and misled" in a "sinister" manner.
WH Smith is often described as the worst offender and the practice extends to its "Thumping Good Read" prize. The competition costs nothing to enter but the publishers behind the shortlisted books are asked to pay a £2,500 "contribution".
The company defended the charges yesterday, saying publishers' money went towards marketing their books, helping them to sell more copies.
A spokeswoman said "Read of the Week" titles were selected by a reading panel of staff and their families who read 500 books a year between them. Once the panel had selected a title, its publisher would be approached and would be asked to pay £10,000, which would be used to buy newspaper adverts and pay for in-store promotional material.
The arrangement gave the publishers the option of refusing to pay but none had done so yet, the spokeswoman said. Their acquiescence was hardly surprising, because refusal would amount to commercial suicide, one employee said. "You know that if you did not pay you would never get any of your titles chosen again. If you don't pay up you can bet that your book won't appear and they will choose somebody else. People would be astounded by the amount of money that goes into buying a good space in the shops for two weeks."
Shoppers might also be astounded that the recommendations they believed were the result of enthusiastic bookshop staff are actually the result of a hard-headed financial arrangement. WH Smith denies that readers are being misled, arguing that the readers' panels ensure only books that are genuinely liked are considered for special recommendations.
"The books would not be 'Read of the Week' if they did not merit it. If a book merits it, we will ask a publisher for a contribution to marketing costs. You cannot buy your way into 'Read of the Week' with a bad book. The whole purpose of the reading groups is to ensure that it is a good book and people will want to buy it," she said.
Regardless of the ethics of the deals, the arrangement does work. Paul Henderson, marketing director at Ottakar's, which has 75 shops in Britain, said making a title "Book of the Month" could increase its sales by up to 20 per cent. Readers did not lose because only books chosen by its reading committee were considered. "What happens is that publishers get a fantastic show in our shops for a book that we as a chain 100 per cent believe in," he said.Reuse content