Not the Richard & Judy Effect

Is Amanda Ross’s TV Book Club the new Richard & Judy? I’d rather watch Loose Women.

At its height, the Richard and Judy Book Club (Channel 4, 2004-2008) was responsible for one in four of all books sold in the UK. Producer Amanda Ross was the most powerful person in publishing. A book chosen by her could be catapulted from obscurity to number one in the bestseller list – and stay there. Anointed books would sell 250,000 copies. Millionaire authors were created. Careers were made. Publishers went feral trying to get their books onto Ross’s desk.
Good news for publishers – if your book was picked. Good news for authors – if you made the cut. Less good if your book was overlooked. Especially if it was released during their Summer Reads season.
Although the Richard & Judy Book Club was criticised for having a disproportionate influence on the book market – notably by Mark Lawson – it really amplified and accelerated an existing trade trend of more promotion behind fewer titles. When it ended, some feared it spelled ruin for UK publishing. The industry, somehow, struggled on. And got very excited when rumours began of the whole hoopla starting up again with a re-launched Ross book show.
So it was with heaving expectation that Amanda Ross launched The TV Book Club on us a little over a week ago with five (count them) celebrity presenters. Would it be a worthy successor to Richard & Judy? Would it skew sales? Would it save publishing? Would it introduce us to some great new books? Would it be any good?
You can catch the first episode on YouTube and judge for yourself. John Walsh sums it up perfectly in his article for The Independent:

After five minutes of vacuous philistinism, Jo Brand asked “Are we agreed that it’s a good read?” and everyone dutifully nodded. You didn’t have to be VS Naipaul to feel that good books deserved better coverage.

Now, we’re only two episodes in, and it is perhaps unfair to judge until the new show gets into its stride. But, along with many book trade folk on Twitter, I’m already rolling my sponsored-by-Specsavers eyes.
Whatever you thought of Richard & Judy, there seemed to be real passion for the books, and everything selected for the list was endorsed by them as A Good Read. The TV Book Club seems to be an incipient sales phenomenon in search of a format: unsure whether it wants to be the new R&J with a stamp of approval for each book, or a dumbed-down Review Show with panel debate and disagreement. The former seems more appropriate, given the vested commercial interest in actually selling the books. Yet Jo Brand went a bit Germaine Greer on us this week and clearly hated Blacklands. This seems an insoluble conundrum. We won’t believe five people universally loving the same book, and it makes for dull television. Yet if there is dissent, will it put off potential purchasers?
What is more damaging is the lack of engagement – positive or negative – the panel seem to have with the books. This may be because the panel are out of their comfort zone. It might be due to the eight minutes allocated to the opinions of five panellists plus one guest on the chosen book – hardly time to articulate anything of value. What is to be done? Based on these first episodes, I suggest the following Five Rules of Book Club:

  1. Drop the Gok. A pentagram of presenters is overkill. By the time they’ve autocue-introduced each other to us at the start of the show, I’ve lost interest. Each gets about 30 seconds to offer their literary insights which, in the case of Gok Wan, a man more at home hosing women down in swimming pools, seems to amount to “I thought it was quite good, what did you think?” and using the Alesha Dixon “you was” verb form. Call me a stickler. Why is this man telling me what to read? Are there no articulate, bookish presenters out there? Or is that too elitist of me?
  2. Hacks not Heat. Discussing books with informed passion seems more of a critical success factor for this sort of show than having it hosted by a glittering array of B-list celebrities. Much as I like Jo Brand and Dave Spikey, the focus on celebrity presenters, guests and memoirs seems to have been seized upon just as this trend is on the wane. OK, Richard and Judy might be considered celebrities too. But when it comes to reviewing books, the advantage they had over these actors and comedians is that they are, first and foremost, journalists. It shows.
  3. Put the literary horse before the cash cow. I’m sure no one imagined the influence Richard & Judy would have on the industry when their book club started in 2004. We’re wiser now. Which makes it tempting to build a show around the anticipated commercial after-effects rather than create a compelling book show based on good content. Yet if Ross assumes her choices will automatically become bestsellers, there’s a risk that it will annoy people in the same way Simon Cowell annoys us by assuming his latest karaoke protege will become Christmas number one.
  4. Tell us something we don’t know. I’m sure The Little Stranger – the choice for episode 1 – is a great book. But it was shortlisted for the Booker prize last year, and has already had a lot of TV publicity. It seems a lazy choice. If we are to start skewing the market again with 10 books per year taking all limelight, how about spreading the love around, sharing the wealth, and surprising us with something new? There are a lot of books out there.
  5. Don’t underestimate the audience. Some people who watch daytime TV are quite literary and intelligent. Really. They’ll probably want more than a cheeky wink from a TV fashionista to convince them to buy a book that’s “quite good but not enough lesbians”. Audiences are more sophisticated than that. Just phoning it in won’t do.

But there’s another problem that won’t be solved with format tinkering. The potential audience size for The TV Book Club makes repeating the sales volume of R&J Book Club seem unlikely. The Sunday night More4 audience and Monday lunchtime Channel 4 audience is tiny compared with Richard & Judy’s daily daytime slot cultivated over many years. And their book club was a weekly segment of a broader magazine show. People watched the show and were drawn into the book club. Whether they would have tuned in for a stand-alone book club is doubtful.
So calm down, book publicists. The TV Book Club won’t be the new Richard & Judy Effect. The new Richard & Judy Effect might just yet be… Richard and Judy. They haven’t gone away. They’ve just been lying dormant, biding their time, making the occasional appearance on BBC Question Time – and tweeting. Their book club is coming back, reinvented for the Internet age. And it could be their smartest move yet.
We’re living in a different media landscape to the one that dominated when Richard and Judy left Channel 4. No one watched Watch, the cable channel they moved to. But we’ve all since piled into Twitter and Facebook. Twitter book clubs are not new – and have even been flirted with by Amanda Ross’s brother-in-law Jonathan. Wossy Book Club didn’t really take off (was this because of lack of time/interest – or an awkward family meeting?) but the potential to use the medium is there.
An Internet book club, if pitched right, with the established brand strength of Richard & Judy, and promoted well with social media could reach a very wide audience. In an age of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogging, we are the media. We’re online, opinionated, and discerning. Yet we still want to discover and consume the ‘old media’ forms of music, film, TV – and books.  We still like opinion formers and influencers who have something of value to say. But we like to be engaged. We don’t like being told what to listen to, watch or read by media moguls or someone who sounds like they’ve read the blurb on the way to the studio.
Meanwhile, if you really want some daytime TV exposure for your author, try Paul O’Grady, Alan Titchmarsh or Loose Women instead.

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Jon Reed

Jon Reed is a content writer, author, screenwriter, lecturer, blogger - and the founder of Publishing Talk. He was previously a publisher for 10 years. Publishing Talk aims to help new and emerging authors write, publish and sell books. Advice is available via the blog and our masterclasses and membership programme. More...