x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

New chapter opens for TV book clubs

The most non-literary of communication media, TV, has become a priceless cog in the selling of books.

On her television show, Oprah Winfrey called David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle a classic and the "best novel I've read in a long, long, long time".
On her television show, Oprah Winfrey called David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle a classic and the "best novel I've read in a long, long, long time".

If you ask any bookseller to suggest the most important development in their trade over the past 15 years, they might point to the storytelling phenomenon that is Dan Brown or JK Rowling. They could talk excitedly about the new generation of e-reader such as Amazon's Kindle. But they'd definitely switch on their televisions and wax lyrical about two shows that have changed the book world for ever: Oprah's Book Club and Richard and Judy.

And this month another programme readies itself to make stars of unlikely debut authors, and add a few more zeros to the bank balances of more established writers. The TV Book Club might be a new name in the UK, but it is a familiar format, the successor to the segment of Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan's chat show, which first began discussing books back in 2004. Right from the start, their choices (or rather, those of the producer, Amanda Ross) were hugely influential: Joseph O'Connor's The Star of the Sea was languishing in the lower reaches of the book charts - as you might expect from a novel about Irish refugees crossing the channel in 1847. But Bob Geldof called it a masterpiece on Richard and Judy, it sold out at Amazon the same night, and the rest is best-selling history. The same happened to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones and Cecilia Aherne's PS I Love You.

Richard and Judy has moved on, but so has The TV Book Club. It will now be a stand-alone programme (still produced by Ross) which will have a rotating panel of celebrities - comedians, actors and the like - but, crucially, no boring literary types. And that's the reason it was such a success with Richard and Judy: they were straightforward people whose opinions you could trust. They weren't going to recommend an impenetrably boring book laden with flashy writing but light on story.

The return of the show also means, unless it's a flop of completely unpredicted proportions, that the books featured - the list is published in advance - will be at the top of the charts this year. That's good for the likes of Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger and Nick Hornby's Juliet Naked, but fantastic for the debut from the Indian novelist Abraham Verghese. His story of Siamese twins born in an Ethiopian mission hospital, Cutting for Stone, will find itself sold in as many supermarkets as bookshops.

Such breadth of writing and nationalities is what makes The TV Book Club an impressive undertaking. Roma Tearne is Sri Lankan, and her Brixton Beach starts with the London bombings and takes in the civil war in her homeland. George Pelacanos is a Washington DC crime-writer as famous for writing episodes of The Wire as he will be for the book featured here, The Way Home. In a sense, this is a book club reading list for the world.

Of course, Ross can't take all the credit. The feature on Richard and Judy was a barely disguised attempt to replicate some of the success of a similar section of Oprah Winfrey's show, Oprah's Book Club, which has run since 1996. Again, her influence has been huge, helping books such as James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces sell millions of copies (and in the process causing a huge furore when Frey admitted that it wasn't actually true). Cormac McCarthy's The Road is enjoying massive exposure, thanks to the highly acclaimed film adaptation. But would it have hit the silver screen at all if Winfrey had not made it a book club choice in 2007 - and coaxed the reclusive author on to television to talk about it? Doubtful - and the same goes for Bernard Schlink's The Reader.

The influence of these televisual book clubs goes well beyond the countries in which they're shown - the best-seller lists in Brazil often mirror Winfrey's choices. The rise of local book clubs across the world over the past 15 years is also surely thanks to agreat extent to Oprah Winfrey and Richard and Judy. If we had to choose one book from the most recent list, it would be Waters's haunted-house thriller The Little Stranger. But, as booksellers have noted with some glee, it is frequently not a case of choosing one book. Voracious readers have taken advantage of tie-in deals and bought all 10. No wonder every author wants his or her book on a television book club show.

The full list can be found at www.tvbookclub.co.uk