Pulp friction

July 6, 2007

Despite its huge effect on book sales, Richard & Judy is ignored by academia. Nothing new there, says Clive Bloom

Many years ago Queenie Roth, the formidable half of that famous literary double act "FrankandQueenieLeavis", berated her university colleagues for secretly liking middle-brow fiction. She had done her research work in popular reading habits and so she knew what she was about. Standards had to be maintained against the mass media and against popular taste. For goodness' sake, she asked in despair, what were academics doing with the likes of Edgar Wallace and Dorothy L. Sayers? What indeed? Civilisation had gone to pot.

Queenie wouldn't have liked Judy Finnegan (she of the mumsy attire and peekaboo bra) and one half of that loveable television couple known as "RichardandJudy", whose magazine-format television show airs at five o'clock on Channel 4 every day for the six months that Paul O'Grady is resting. The show is now the most influential book-selling tool in the UK. Queenie would never have bothered to buy a Richard & Judy discounted summer read (as sponsored by Galaxy chocolate), nor would she have been able to relax on her poolside lounger with a copy of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian (a "richly told story about family" and vampires) as she rubbed Ambre Solaire into her sun-kissed body and adjusted her thong. Khaki shorts, a cold shower and a copy of one of George Eliot's longer novels, perhaps. Times were harder then.

Literary criticism has always been a cocktail of snobbishness and insight, and even now it is difficult to deal with the influence on the reading public of shows such as Oprah (which started it all) or Richard & Judy , when anything commercial is immediately suspect (and looked upon with green-eyed envy by academics who sell their books in multiples of ten). Literary criticism as practised in universities has never been about the public or how real people read and is, even now, tied to canons of literary taste that have changed relatively little since the time of I. A. Richards.

Is it any wonder that the extraordinary influence on the life of Britain as a literary nation of Richard & Judy 's Book Club, Summer Read and Christmas Special selection, has been ignored? This is even more surprising as the authors whom academics applaud at Hay-on-Wye or Cheltenham literary festivals made their money in the stack-'em-high, sell-'em-cheap marketplace of Waterstone's and Borders (no wonder I haven't seen these books, I only go into Blackwell's).

The facts tell an incredible tale. The Guardian official UK bestseller list for December 2006 suggested from reported sales that 21 of the top 100 titles were by authors that have been selected by Richard & Judy . This represents 6.5 million copies, or 26 per cent of all book sales: one in every five of the top 100 books sold in the UK last year was recommended by the show.

These figures followed the impact of the Book Club of 2006. A particular highlight then was Kate Mosse's Labyrinth , which as well as winning the Richard & Judy Best Read at the British Book Awards, went on to become the biggest-selling paperback of that year.

Victoria Hislop's The Island (a heart-warming tale of Greek leper folk), which featured on the Summer Read 2006, also hit the top spot in the literary charts, knocking aside another of the duo's recommended reads, Sam Bourne's The Righteous Men (a kosher Da Vinci Code ), which went down to number three. The winner in this year's Book Club selection is Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld (Freud in Manhattan). It has already sold more than half a million copies and will probably become one of the paperbacks of the year. Six of the other seven titles selected have all also sold more than 100,000 copies, and selection on the shortlist guarantees bestseller status.

Altogether, between January 2004 and the end of May 2006, consumers had purchased 10 million copies of the 30 books appearing on the Richard & Judy Book Club (RJBC for those in the know) and spent more than £58 million. Almost 30 per cent of purchases, or £16 million worth of goods, were prompted by the appearance of the title on the television show, and 41 per cent of purchases were prompted by seeing the book with the Richard & Judy sticker in leading bookshops where heavy discounts and prominent displays leave room for little else.

Publishers are delighted with this windfall. They submit half a dozen titles, which are read by the Cactus production team as well as by Richard and Judy before a selection is made on gut instincts for a "complete mix" and a "great" read. Indeed, Random House has benefited most from the programme's promotional technique of picking celebrity readers and a book club to review what's on offer. Such sales accounted for over a fifth of all Random House profits since January 2004.

Booksellers, too, are hardly crying in their gin. Chain bookshops alone have accounted for sales of just over half the titles, which means that independent bookshops have no choice but to follow, narrowing the choices on offer. Almost all the purchases were prompted by an appearance on the show. Commercial authors must be television-friendly nowadays. Fewer books but more profit means that even the supermarkets are cashing in, with books heavily discounted at bookshops in multiple deals of "3 for 2". In 1926, publisher Stanley Unwin had announced that advertising was a waste of money. Times have certainly changed.

Yet it is in the readership figures that things get really interesting. So called AB purchasers (that is, the bright ones; the term comes from advertising bands for purchasers) are heavy buyers of books in general, representing 17 per cent of the sample population, but accounting for 28 per cent of all books bought since January 2004. They are even more important to the programme's market, accounting for 37 per cent of all Book Club purchases. A massive 44 per cent of AB readers are prompted to buy specifically by a television recommendation or celebrity appearance, and almost all AB readers are women, the books circulating between mothers and daughters, sisters and girlfriends. Those living in the Midlands and Lancashire appear most influenced by Richard & Judy's relentless literary bonhomie (Tony Robinson once said he didn't like a title and was treated like the lepers in Victoria Hislop's book). They must be rather susceptible in the North or starved of libraries because they have accounted for more than a third of purchases.

Queenie Leavis's mixture of shrewdness and snobbery has characterised literary studies ever since. But by turning her back on the reading public Queenie missed an important lesson in humility. A pity she was never home at teatime.

Clive Bloom is emeritus professor of English and American studies, adjunct professor, University of Notre Dame (London). His book Terror Within: the Dream of a British Republic was published in June.

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