Catching up with book club bait at Foyles
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
Richard and Judy are quitting the daytime TV sofa after 21 years. But their exit is not just television's loss - the book world will also mourn the departure of a couple who changed Britons' reading habits.
There's a certain thread running through a lot of novels that have sold well in the UK in the last few years. They share nothing so exact as a genre or type, but they have exotic titles, a powerful story and a literary bent.
Oh, and a badge. A badge that says "Richard and Judy".
The couple's last show together is broadcast on Wednesday
If you've read The Time Traveller's Wife, The Bookseller of Kabul or The Shadow of the Wind, then you may well have benefited from a Richard and Judy recommendation.
They are all books that have had their UK sales massively boosted by the Richard and Judy Book Club. Since the "club" started in 2004, the doyen and doyenne of daytime television have championed works that might otherwise have struggled to be marketed to such a wide audience.
The selections are divided into the winter book club and the often lighter "summer reads" section.
Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan do not pick the books. That process is led by Amanda Ross, co-head of production company Cactus TV, aided by a small team. It's no surprise that Ross was identified by one newspaper as the most powerful person in the whole of publishing.
"It has been an absolute phenomenon," says Graeme Neill, of The Bookseller, who has been examining the sales impact of the book club using figures from Neilsen BookScan. "There have been book sales of 30.8 million units with a value of £183.3m [of books recommended on the show]. And what this doesn't take into consideration is the effect on backlist sales."
Book club bait
A recommendation really can change the life of an author, notes Neill. Dorothy Koomson had written two books, The Cupid Effect and The Chocolate Run which had sold fewer than 5,000 copies in the UK by the time My Best Friend's Girl was a "summer read" in 2006.
That third novel sold 545,000 copies. The follow up, Marshmallows for Breakfast, sold 230,000 copies. The Chocolate Run was re-released and sold 120,000 copies.
Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Connor
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Labyrinth by Kate Mosse
Before Simon Kernick's Relentless was a "summer read" in 2007, he had four books out that were shifting a combined 259 copies per week . In 2008 his average weekly sale was somewhere in the region of 9,000 copies a week.
The same effect can be seen with even the most literary of fiction, says Neill. Julian Barnes might have expected to have sold 20,000 copies of a typical release, but shifted 300,000 copies of Arthur and George after its recommendation on the club in 2006.
Neill lists the multilayered Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, William Boyd's spy novel Restless and the emotional drama of Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal as evidence of the club's eclecticism.
Getting on the list prompts the popping of champagne corks for the lucky publisher. It also leads books to be sold and marketed in places they would otherwise have got nowhere near.
David Cooke is "category manager" in charge of book buying at Tesco, now a major player in the UK books market, and recognises the impact that Richard and Judy have had.
A Richard and Judy sticker on the cover helps sales
"They have brought different books to new people. Probably 50-60% of all the books they have chosen we wouldn't have listed otherwise.
"The typical Tesco book buyer only buys one or two books a year, driven by covers and what's very popular."
The club, like Oprah Winfrey's, has not been completely without its critics. Last year, novelist Andrew O'Hagan accused the show of underestimating its audience, "treating them as if they are stupid". His comments were prominently reported in the Observer.
"We have an industry where we have a Richard and Judy culture. Certain totemic elements, certain gongs must [have] been struck for a novel to be worthy of presentation to a mass audience. This is coarsening."
But the general effect of the club has won many over in the literary world, says Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead.
"When it started I was sceptical. I thought their choices would be trashy and it wouldn't make any difference to anything of any quality.
"The summer list tended to be more potboilery, but the winter list had some really serious books. The [literary] world is better off."
ON THE FIRST LIST
Toast by Nigel Slater
Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Connor
Lucia, Lucia by Adriana Trigiani
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Starter for Ten by David Nicholls
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
White Mughals by William Dalrymple
The Know by Martina Cole
Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad
Referring to the first Richard and Judy list from 2004 [detailed in the factbox on the right], she says: "That is a fantastic list. Five years on that list stands up really well."
One criticism might be that the strong advocacy of books like Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones had prompted a movement towards "issue writing" with "books that are written for non-readers", suggests Armitstead.
"That became a model of how to get beyond the 'reading' readership. That sort of story is very amenable to the Richard and Judy treatment."
There is also a question mark for some over whether selection on the show really helped an author towards a sustained career, or just a flash of publicity and sales.
"It tends to be one book where Oprah's has made reputations," says Armitstead.
Mr Cooke at Tesco concurs. "It works really well first time around - second time it's harder."
The show has also lost impact since it moved off terrestrial television last year and on to digital station Watch.
By the beginning of June, The Bookseller was noting disappointing sales of the "summer read" choices, with Stephen L Carter's Palace Council selling on 3,363 copies in the week after its selection on 27 May.
And now it has come to an end, with the demise of the show. But Ross is rumoured to be in negotiations to revive the format, possibly back on terrestrial television, and that will make the publishing industry happy.
It may even be without either Richard or Judy. Neill suggests the format could work without them, but notes: "There needs to be that same relationship between the host and the viewer. They did seem to be good at tapping people that weren't necessarily book buying people."
And if you want to track the effect of the show, you can test it today. The last choice is The Piano Teacher by Janice YK Lee. As of 1130 BST today, it ranked 90th in Amazon's sales list.
If it has risen by 1130 BST tomorrow, then a little of the Richard and Judy magic might still be there.
Send us your comments using the form below.
Richard and Judy or not, a book read that wouldn't have been otherwise must be a good thing. To get beyond the "reading" readership, might we be ready to rediscover storytelling on TV? As a child I fondly remember Jackanory as a programme that encouraged me to read. Radio 4 has Book at Bedtime which is a little late on for me but wouldn't it be marvellous (and cheap) to rota this country's finest literary & theatrical talent for the purposes of bringing back nightly spoken books on TV.
Gerry Corrigan, Hemel Hempstead
Andrew O'Hagan is correct: "We have an industry where we have a Richard and Judy culture. Certain totemic elements, certain gongs must [have] been struck for a novel to be worthy of presentation to a mass audience. This is coarsening." Coarsening is exactly the right word; for the most part the chosen book reflected their own off-the-peg life-view and was the mental equivalent of chewing gum. Their choices were highly predictable, with London-based, middle class, left-leaning liberality featuring prominently in the mix. Many weren't even competently written. In their defence, it's been very difficult to get anything else published in the past half-century, but at least Oprah's choices stretched her own viewpoint.
Literary Leaning, Oxford, UK
Reading is my favourite pastime and always has been. I regularly visit bookshops and buy three or four books at a time to keep me going. I haven't ever actively chosen a book because it has been recommended by Richard and Judy, but recently I happened to pick up one of their Summer Reads and I couldn't put it down.
Has anyone factored in the negative impact of a recommendation? Many a time I've been flicking through a novel, idly considering about buying the thing, only to spot the dreaded "recommended by Richard and Judy" badge. The only decent course of action is to return the poor author's magnum opus to the shelf with a sigh of regret and frustration. The reader suffers; the author suffers; even, judging by their ratings, Richard and Judy suffer.
Chris, Farnham, Surrey
It's very easy to be sniffy about projects like R&J's book club. I read a lot and, to tell the truth, I was dubious at first. I never watched the programme but there's no denying the enormous effect the club had on broadening reading habits. Whatever the motivation, the results have been good all round. Reading is good for your brain.
David Blake, London
R&J got Britain reading again, that's an achievement. There may be those who are able to spend an afternoon browsing book shops (and believe me, I yearn to have those days back again) but most of us simply don't have time. I don't like all of R&Js recommendations, but they are made for a wide audience, so not every book will appeal to every reader. But it's good to know that the book is considered a good read. And no, I don't watch the show - I look for the sticker on those rare occasions I do get near a bookshop.
I was looking for a new novel to read and came across the Richard & Judy section in WH Smiths, and I'm so glad I decided to trust their recommendation sticker. Mystery Man is one of the funniest books I've read in years. I will be buying more of his books, and more from their recommendations too.
Lowri Jones, Bangor, Gwynedd
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