DCSIMG

The last word

NORMALLY it's hard enough to get feuding celebrities Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson in the same room as each other. But at tomorrow night's British Book Awards at London's Grosvenor Hotel, they'll be joined by Sharon Osborne, Julian Barnes, Charlie Higson, John Banville, Jung Chang, Kate Mosse, Jamie Oliver and even, it is rumoured, JK Rowling.

Yet the most important person in such a celebrity-starred room, the person who got them all there in the first place, isn't any of the above. It's someone the paparazzi waiting outside might not even recognise, no matter how long she stopped and smiled on the red carpet.

Being joint managing director (with her husband) of Cactus Television, which is filming the awards ceremony, would of itself make Amanda Ross a major player in British book world: when the programme is screened on Saturday it is expected to be seen by more than five times the number of people who watched the Man Booker Prize. But that is only one of the reasons Ross is routinely described as the most powerful woman in British publishing. All the other reasons can be summarised in two names and three words: Richard and Judy.

As executive producer of Richard & Judy, Ross decided three years ago to introduce a book club. Channel 4's executives were sceptical, but Ross had seen what a book club did for the Oprah Winfrey Show in the US and was convinced that success could be replicated in Britain.

She's been proved spectacularly right. So right publishers have long known that a discussion of one of their authors' works in the ten-minute book club slot on the Wednesday editions of the show is usually enough to turn it into a bestseller.

They call this "the Richard & Judy effect", and in sales terms it's colossal: at least one in every 50 books sold in British bookshops is reckoned to be down to its endorsement on the show. Proportionately, that makes Amanda Ross even more influential than Oprah.

Even those doubting Channel 4 executives have been made to eat their words. When Richard & Judy was recommissioned until the end of 2008, they said that the show's book club was one of the main reasons. In PR terms, says Andrew Duncan, the head of Channel 4, it's one of the best things the station has ever done.

The woman who has become Britain's literary taste-maker-in-chief works in an unimposing office she shares with her two pet dogs in a converted polystyrene factory in Kennington, south London. Apart from about 50 books arranged face-out on the shelf of one wall, there is no sign that this is the one place in Britain where a writer's career can be made and bestsellerdom taken as read. But they can and are.

Anyone who's ever worked in publishing knows the most ferocious debates are always about whether the cover design is strong enough to lure readers. Yet such is Ross's power, that she has a right of veto over cover design.

"That's outrageous - I'd tell her to take a running jump," says Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago and the most influential woman in publishing in the 1980s when I mention it to her. Few publishers dare question Ross's influence. "They know I know what sells," Ross says. "The book that proved that was Cecilia Ahern's debut novel PS, I Love You. When the publishers asked me what I thought of its cover, I said, 'I'm not going to get Richard sitting there with a pink book!' They changed the cover to blue and that was it.

"Now the publishers all send their covers to me and we can change them if we want. It's important for us that the books we promote are universally appealing." Provided Ross gives the nod, publishers are similarly flexible about moving their paperback publication dates around to suit her. Normally, for example, Jonathan Cape would have brought out the paperback edition of Julian Barnes's Arthur and George in July, a year after the hardback version. However, as Ross wanted it as one of her book club's ten weekly choices, it appeared in paperback three months ago.

Barnes's novel is one of the ten books competing in the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year category at tomorrow night's British Book Awards, which are also presented by the couple. It was also shortlisted for last October's Man Booker Prize, but in sales terms even that prize lacks the clout the daytime TV hosts can bestow.

For proof of that, look back to 2004, when the Richard & Judy Book Club started. "When we began," says Ross, "I said I wanted us to find one book that would determine whether or not the book club was a success, a classic that just hadn't had the attention it deserved."

That happened with Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea, a novel about the Irish famine that hadn't even sold 4,000 copies before Sir Bob Geldof, sitting on the studio guests' pink sofa, hailed it as a "modern masterpiece". Since then, it has sold over a million copies.

There have been others. Normally, American literary fiction doesn't sell particularly well in Britain, but Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones also hit seven-figure sales following its appearance on Richard & Judy. In this year's book club, Kate Mosse's historical thriller Labyrinth has become the fastest-selling paperback of all time following its appearance on the show in January.

Astute readers will have noticed that the only way books have been discussed so far is in sales terms rather than their literary merit. That's largely the way Ross talks about them too, along with a small amount of TV jargon (she put Mosse's book on so early in the series, she explains, because she knew its popularity would be a "schedule bomb"). She doesn't even seem to acknowledge literary merit as a distinct quality. "As far as I'm concerned," she says, "the only thing that matters is whether it's a good story."

But although such a comment usually elicits a certain sniffiness among the literati, it's fair to point out that the show also highlights the fact that the great British public's literary tastes are not necessarily as lowbrow as many publishers might assume. As Madeley points out: "It nails the lie that daytime TV is for dimwits." (Well, up to a point... )

Certainly, William Dalrymple's White Mughals, the only book Ross has chosen so far by a Scottish author, is a superlative study of interracial marriage in 18th century India, and a sophisticated piece of narrative history. And similarly, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which narrowly missed the Man Booker but which won the R&J Best Read award last year, is an equally complex interwoven story written in a variety of different styles, not all of them immediately accessible. Reading for dimwits? Absolutely not.

More than 500 books are submitted to Ross, who winnows them down with the help of just three other readers, first by seeing if the submitted synopsis appeals and then, when the list has been reduced to 150, by reading at least the first chapter.

"My litmus test is simple," she says. "I just read until I can't stop reading them." She reads potential book club choices every day, always taking a bundle of them with her every other weekend when she flies out to her second home near Rome.

But aren't they always safe choices? "Not at all," says Ross briskly, pointing out the line of this year's book choices behind me.

"They've all got their risks. Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, because lots of publishers turned it down, Labyrinth because it's just such a thick book, Barnes's Arthur & George because he's not a mass market author, Andrew Smith's Moondust because you might not get into his style."

What there is in the list, Ross insists, is balance. Fiction and non-fiction, thick and thin, exotic and resolutely British, women's fiction and books for men (Smith's Moondust, about what's happened to the only nine men to have walked on the moon since their return to Earth is her own favourite from this year's crop). She'd have loved a book of short stories for the first time, she reveals, but Alice Munro didn't want to be filmed for the programme.

Even without Munro, it's still a good mix. The numbers prove it. Each series brings 1.8 million book sales that wouldn't otherwise happen. Even the BBC implicitly admits that Ross has got it right, signing up audio rights for every book on her list. Nor does it end there: Ross's search for new writing talent will probably, she hints, soon find a stand-alone show in its own right. Right now though, there's no time to talk about that. The most powerful woman in British publishing has a show to run. "All I'm really trying to do is make bookshops less scary places," she says as she leaves. "And I just love it that we can inspire people to read who wouldn't normally."

• The British Book Awards are on Channel 4 on Saturday at 5:55pm and will be repeated on More4 on Sunday at 6pm.

The Richard and Judy effect: their top ten reads

1. LABYRINTH

by Kate Mosse

This Cathar-country thriller has sparked a literary "treasure hunt" not unlike that inspired by The Da Vinci Code. This summer, it is not the Louvre in Paris but the medieval town of Carcassonne in south-west France that will teem with Holy Grail-seekers, inspired by Mosse's complex time-shift story.

• Sales in 2006: 377,652

2. THE HISTORY OF LOVE

by Nicole Krauss

Our hero, septuagenarian Leo Gursky, a lonely New Yorker living alone and struggling to survive, clings to memories of Alma, the girl he loved and wrote a book about as a young boy in Poland. The arrival of an unexpected letter brings his book and his dreams alive again.

• Sales in 2006: 70,000

3. THE FARM

by Richard Benson

An original, auto-biographical and wholly unsentimental account of the Benson family farm in Yorkshire during the author's childhood. It highlights the difficulties of existence in the English countryside and evokes a disappearing picture of rural life.

• Sales in 2006: 71,630

4. THE CONJUROR'S BIRD

by Martin Davies

Fitz, once an expert in extinct animal species with a burgeoning career, but now himself in danger of disappearing, is asked by his former girlfriend to help trace the history of The Mysterious Bird of Uileta, an oddity from centuries past.

• Sales in 2006: 29,000

5. ARTHUR & GEORGE

by Julian Barnes

In the late-19th century, two men from diverse backgrounds are united by a miscarriage of justice. George, a Midlands solicitor, is wrongly accused of a crime. On reading about the case, the Edinburgh-based academic Arthur makes it his goal to clear George's name.

• Sales in 2006: 70,520

6. THE LOST ART OF KEEPING SECRETS

by Eva Rice

A quirky coming-of-age novel set between fashionable London society and a decrepit country house in the 1950s. Teenagers suffering post-war ennui and the birth of rock'n'roll are woven into an archly amusing story of love among the upper- class set.

• Sales in 2006: 83, 678

7. EMPRESS ORCHID

by Anchee Min

A 17-year-old Chinese girl named Orchid competes to become the Emperor's new wife so that she can help her family out of poverty - and escape an arranged marriage to her unappealing cousin. Little does she know she will become the last Empress of China.

• Sales in 2006: 84,365

8. MARCH

by Geraldine Brooks

We all know what became of Louisa M Alcott's Little Women, but what of the absent father fighting in the American Civil War? Brooks's novel focuses on soldier John March who, while recuperating in a Washington hospital, contemplates returning to life in the family home.

• Sales in 2006: 34,903

9. THE LINCOLN LAWYER

by Michael Connelly

Mickey Haller is one of the "Lincoln Lawyers" - criminal defence attorneys who work out of the back of a Lincoln car, dotting between US courthouses to pick up any cases they can get. Then Haller is asked to defend a rich youth from Beverly Hills. It looks like Haller's career is made, but then the tale twists again.

• Sales in 2006: 17,000

10 MOONDUST

by Andrew Smith

During an interview with astronaut Charlie Duke, journalist Andrew Smith witnesses the arrival of news that one of Duke's nine remaining fellow moon-walkers has died. Moved by Duke's response, Smith becomes obsessed with preserving the experiences of men who walked on the Moon.

• Sales in 2006: 73,066

 
 
 

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