Well-read, and not just in the waiting room

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The Independent Online
WE LOVE jokes at Reader's Digest. We receive about 50,000 contributions a year sent in by our readers and we print as many of the good ones as we can. There are jokes about us, too, and that is flattering, putting us up there with royalty, the BBC and the weather. I warn recruits to the company of the questions they will face at almost every party or dinner they go to. I offer them these well-tested answers: (1) Yes. (2) Yes. (3) Yes, 6,246,000 of them and often in bed. (I'll give you the questions later.)

Most of this week's coverage devoted to Reader's Digest taking over the top spot from Radio Times as Britain's best-selling and best-read magazine has mentioned dentists' waiting rooms, which are allegedly the only places the magazine is read. I asked our research department to check the figures. There are, according to the General Dental Council, 25,725 registered dentists in the UK, many of whom share practices, so there must be considerably fewer waiting rooms. Doctors' waiting rooms perhaps? We asked the Royal College of General Practitioners, which told us there are 33,839 GPs and 9,779 practices in the UK. If we sold a copy to every single dental and medical practice in the UK, which sadly we don't, our sales would be around 30,000. In fact, sales of Reader's Digest in the UK are more than 1.6 million and rising, with a readership of more than 6 million. So who are these souls who spend, on average, 81 minutes reading our magazine every month?

We're read almost equally by men and women. If you hold a demographic map of the UK alongside our sales map, you'll find there are many similarities in the proportions. We have 3.3 million ABC1 readers, and more businessmen (21 per cent) read us than the Financial Times (15 per cent). Our immediate rivals are the television magazines, the Bradshaws of broadcasting, which are read far more for their listings than for their features.

Why have we succeeded in becoming the No 1 title in Britain? First, we tell great stories that are well written, tightly edited and accurate. We are not afraid to tackle uncomfortable issues such as child abuse or drug taking, but we don't leave our readers wringing their hands, feeling that there is nothing they can do. We believe that individuals can make a crucial difference in the world. We are encouraging our readers to get out this summer and help to clean up Britain's dirty beaches; we have campaigned for cycle helmets, car airbags and the control of dangerous dogs. Over the years we have tirelessly highlighted the dangers of smoking, from heart disease and cancer to wrinkles and loss of erection, and we refuse to accept cigarette advertising - a decision that has cost us millions worldwide.

Every fact is double-checked before we publish. Not only does that mean the editor can sleep soundly at night, not waiting for the writ at the door, it means our readers trust us and can quote us confidently, knowing that we are as right as humanly possible.

We have 10 researchers who pursue facts with a special joy. We all fell about laughing when we heard that John Birt planned to appoint a fact- checker for the Nine O'Clock News. Just the one, John? It can take up to a week to track down a primary source for a single fact. Recently there was conflicting evidence about how many steps there are at St Paul's Cathedral. Our intrepid researcher went to pace it out. Locals in a typical XXXX bar in the middle of Australia were amused one afternoon to get a call from a researcher asking if the Queen's Hotel had an apostrophe before or after the 's'. 'What's an apostrophe?' asked the barman. 'A comma hanging in the air,' replied the researcher. She could hear the raucous laughter as the man announced to the bar, 'I'm just going outside to look at our sign to see if we're spelling our name right. Reader's Digest wants to know.'

Now, those questions and answers: (1) Does anyone ever win the Prize Draw? Or does Tom Champagne (our Prize Draw manager), really exist? Yes, I had the pleasure of handing over almost pounds 200,000 recently, and yes, it is his real name.

(2) Can I get on/off your mailing list? Yes, just drop us a line. If you don't like the magazines, books, videos, music we offer we'd much rather know. It costs us a lot to write to you. And we won't divulge your name to any other company. We jealously guard our mailing list.

(3) Does anybody read it? Yes, the magazine is read mainly at home - often in bed - with more than 90 per cent of our sales by subscription and more than 70 per cent renewing each year.

The writer is Editor-in-Chief of Reader's Digest