Amanda Ross, the brains behind the Richard & Judy Book Club, has turned at least 10 authors into millionaires. So why does she attract such sniffiness? Nigel Farndale finds out
Before I meet the most powerful woman in British publishing, I meet her dogs, two Tibetan terriers. They skitter in, narrowly missing a stack of books that teeters on her office floor. As I crouch down to stroke their heads I become distracted by the names juxtaposed on the book spines – they include Billie Piper and Bill Clinton; Julian Barnes and Griff Rhys Jones. It takes a pair of high-heeled, knee-length leather boots in my peripheral vision to undistract me. ‘People always like to check on what I’m reading,’ Amanda Ross says airily.
Of course they do.
Her unofficial title stuck after a publishing ‘power list’ came out last year. It is slightly misleading because a) she is the most powerful ‘person’ in publishing, there being men on the list as well, and b) she is not actually in publishing. She runs Cactus TV with her husband, Simon Ross (brother of Jonathan), and together they produce Richard & Judy, the daytime chat show which, through its insanely popular Book Club, more or less dictates what is in the bestseller lists.
The Book Club was Ross’s idea – inspired by the Oprah Winfrey show – and she is the one who selects the titles featured on it. It works like this: Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan (along with a rotation of celebrities) read and discuss the books that she has shortlisted over the same eight-week period that their viewers are reading and discussing them. Sales of the shortlisted books are known to increase by as much as 3,000 per cent the day after they are featured. The winner of last year’s Best Read Award, Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, holds the number one spot in the 2006 overall sales league table; at number two is Victoria Hislop’s The Island, which was the viewer’s favourite in last year’s Summer Read. Since it started in 2004, in fact, the Book Club has been responsible for the sale of more than 10 million books and has generated more than £60 million for publishers. What this means in practice is that the sales of one in four books sold in this country are now based on Amanda Ross’s recommendations. It also means that, almost single-handedly, she has turned at least 10 authors into millionaires.
Publishers, I suggest, must be sucking up to her like crazyweed. ‘Well the thing is they don’t suck up. They don’t. Partly, I think, because I’m so busy doing a daily live show I don’t have time to have lunch. Anyway, right from the start I made it clear that I wasn’t going to be bribed.’ She laughs. ‘But I do keep dropping hints that I wouldn’t mind a backlist or two for our library in Italy.’ She refers to her second home, a restoration project on the border of Umbria and Tuscany. Her first is just off Clapham Common, a short drive from her studio, a converted polystyrene factory in Kennington.
Amanda Ross is 44 years old and 5ft 5in tall. She has blonde highlighted hair tumbling over her shoulders and an easy laugh. Though she studied drama at Birmingham University, she has no literary pretensions and is keen to point out that, having grown up in a bookless council flat in Pitsea, Essex, her roots are working-class.
To what does she owe the confidence she clearly has in her own taste? ‘It’s not confidence at all. I’m not a very confident person. Making these selections scares me stiff. I do take it personally when I’m criticised, because the book industry is not my industry. It’s like, hey, you know, I’m trying to help here. I don’t make any money out of this. That’s the bizarre thing. The most successful thing in my career, which this is, I don’t make any money from.’
Criticism? Well, according to Madeley: ‘The Book Club has nailed the lie that daytime TV is for “dimwits” and “bored housewives”. We demonstrated that our viewers are intelligent people who relish the opportunity to read and discuss books.’ Certainly, the brow line of the book choices falls between high and middle. Even so, there is still some sniffiness in literary circles. There are those who grumble, off the record, that the prominence given in shops to the Book Club choices means that there is no space left for any other new books.
The arts commentator Mark Lawson, meanwhile, has argued that word-of-Richard-and-Judy has replaced word-of-mouth. Monica Ali snubbed the awards when she was shortlisted. And the novelist Giles Foden made a brave – or foolish – stand in the Guardian recently when he wrote: ‘Personally, I’d rather not listen to the twitterings of a pair of permatanned nincompoops on literary matters.’ What had irked him was a comment Amanda Ross had made about the word ‘literary’. She was quoted as saying she hated it. She also admitted that she had never read anything by Martin Amis, the big beast of the literary world.
‘I got knocked for saying I hate the word “literary”,’ she now says, a touch defensively. ‘What I meant was I don’t like books being put into a box or category if that scares away readers. I was criticised when we started the Book Club because my choices were considered too difficult for a daytime audience, yet one of our winners was Cloud Atlas, which was also shortlisted for the Booker. A lot of our viewers enjoyed that and then afterwards, when they heard it was Literature with a capital L, they were pleased because they had seen past the label. Julian Barnes – he’s another literary author we’ve shortlisted. If we had sold that as a literary work it would have put people off because, for some, literary means difficult or inaccessible.’
Does she read book reviews? ‘No, never. I read The Bookseller and Publishing News, that’s it. I don’t have any real literary knowledge.’
Has she felt under pressure to fill in those gaps? ‘No, because I never pretended that I am particularly well-read. I read a lot, but who knows what is the right thing to read? What I will say is that because of my background in popular television I can look at something and visualise it. I can say: “I think that will have universal appeal.” If any smart-arse critics want to trip me up on my lack of knowledge about literature it would be really easy for them. But I’ll never lie that I’ve read something if I haven’t. Now I’m stuck in a horrible trap, because with the selection process all I’m reading is brand-new fiction: 1,400 books a year are submitted so I don’t have a chance to catch up on other reading beyond that.’
She doesn’t read them all, she explains. She is helped by three assistants, who change each year, and they tend to read a couple of chapters and a synopsis. Only when they are down to a longlist of 50 do they read cover to cover. The final 10 is all a question of size. The list goes thick, thin, thick, thin.
Is Ross a quick reader? ‘No, unfortunately – it’s really frustrating. My husband is a really quick reader. It annoys me because we’ll be sitting together on a plane and he’ll have done 30 pages to my three.’
So what bones can she throw authors in terms of helping them get on her lists? ‘Well a book has to be vivid. Some books can be beautifully written but not a lot happens. They need strong themes and plots. In the end I’m picking something which has to sustain 12 minutes of television discussion. That’s a helluva long time in TV terms.’
So something like Ulysses wouldn’t work? ‘Well you’d have to be able to say what its central themes are and is it going to stimulate an argument? That’s the other thing. Because we are in our fourth year it has to be a discussion we haven’t had before. After Labyrinth was so successful I was submitted a lot of books saying: “This is your next Labyrinth.” Well I don’t want that. There tend to be patterns in publishing. This year there were a lot of African-themed books around so I felt we should choose one of those and so I chose Chimamanda – I can’t say her surname, can you?’ I have a stab: Ngozi? She laughs. ‘I was taught it was “amanda” with “Chim” in front. Anyway, now we are getting lots more African-themed books and we feel we’ve done that.’
The Book Club selection she was most excited about was The Time Traveler’s Wife. ‘I read it on holiday in Italy and I could see now exactly where I was when I read it and I was crying from half way through. I gave it to my husband and he loved it too. Only on holiday do I get a chance to read a book all the way through.’ Publishers, she adds, are always bullying her PA to tell them when she is going on holiday.
Tuh. Publishers. Nearly as bad as authors. When I joke about unsigned books in bookshops being more valuable than signed ones – because they are sale-or-return for the bookshop – she says: ‘Is that why they say a signed book is a sold book? I hadn’t realised that.’ It is a curious thing not to know, a measure of her detachment from the cut-throat publishing world. I ask if she knows many authors. ‘A few. Mostly the ones I’ve picked. And publishers do try and get me to meet authors I might pick, but I think that’s dangerous because if you really like them and then don’t like their book it is awkward. I sat next to William Boyd at the Costas [book awards] after I had picked him and his book was due on the show the next day. I came home and said to my husband: “I’m not going to sleep now because if the panel doesn’t like the book I’m going to be mortified because he is so nice.” ‘ It is a guileless comment. An endearing one, too. ‘Unlike Oprah, we consciously never have the author in the studio, so that we can be honest,’ she adds. ‘You don’t want it to be a puff piece.’
How would she describe her taste? ‘Eclectic.’ Another laugh.
Can she be more specific? ‘There are some I like more than others. I do have favourites in the present list, such as The Girls.’ She plucks a copy of it off her shelves and, as she reads its first page to me, I am struck by her obvious passion for books. She handles them as if they are sacred objects. ‘There are other things which determine taste,’ she says. ‘On the Tube at the moment people are reading This Book Will Save Your Life partly because it’s got a funky, urban cover.’
So she thinks people on the Underground worry about what their choice of book says about them? ‘Exactly. That is why covers are important. Cecelia Ahern’s PS, I Love You was submitted with a bright pink cover and I told HarperCollins that Richard can’t sit there with a bright pink cover. My husband wouldn’t want to either, even though he’s very comfortable with his manhood. No man is going to want to. When you go on holiday you swap books with your partner.’ The cover was changed to blue. It went on to sell a million copies.
I ask about the notorious Richard & Judy Book Club sticker, the one that seems to be spot-welded on. ‘I’m sure there are many people who buy the books and the first thing they do is peel the sticker off,’ she says with a grin.
Because they don’t want strangers to presume that the sticker is the reason they bought it? ‘Maybe, yes. But I do think the stickers make a big difference because I have a lot of feedback from people saying we never watch the show but we have always found when we have read a book with the sticker on that it is an enjoyable read.’
Ross now lets me into a secret which publishers would do well to take note of: ‘My husband is the ultimate arbiter, because I get him to read anything I’m not sure of.’
They married 16 years ago after meeting at Tyne Tees television. ‘We were paired up together as researchers and I laughed so much because Simon is very funny. He made me laugh so much the first week we worked together that my side hurt. I actually had shingles and didn’t realise.’
I ask what Ross family gatherings are like. ‘Loud.’
Jonathan dominates? ‘Actually no, because in the family dynamic he has two older brothers, Paul and Simon, and all three of them are really quick. They shared a bedroom when they were growing up. Five boys. So they had to get along for survival. There are 17 kids in the family – we are the only ones without – so yes, family gatherings are loud.’
Despite IVF treatment, the couple have not been able to have children, something Ross has found hard to come to terms with. ‘I don’t think I could have had the same career if we had had children, though. I don’t think I could have had the same relationship with Simon. We work the hours we do because we don’t have to get back for children.’
Her own childhood was not happy. When Amanda was 11, her father, who worked in an oil refinery, left her mother. ‘I don’t see my father. Haven’t seen him for years. I was brought up by my mother and stepfather. My mother taught me to read before I went to school. I could read when I was three. My mum joined a book club for me and I would read under covers after dark with a torch.’
Escapism? ‘Yes. I’m sure it was. I didn’t fit in at school. I don’t have a posh accent or anything – you can properly still hear where I come from – but my mother taught me to speak properly, for Essex. I was bullied because I didn’t sound like everyone else and because I was very short for my age – I shot up five inches in a year when I was 15 – I was a natural victim. I would join all the clubs because I didn’t have a very nice home life.’
What sort of bullying? ‘It was really bad. Everything from stealing my books to forcing me to have fights with people. Locking me in the toilet. Burning me with cigarettes. I had to change schools, which gave me a chance to change attitudes. My attitude after that was “Don’t pick on me.” It worked.’
She gives me a tour of the TV studio. I meet Simon Ross in the production gallery and, on the studio floor, stand a few feet away from Richard and Judy as they are broadcasting live. They really do have permatans. When we return to her office I study the shelves a little closer and see, between the mugs, framed photographs of Amanda Ross with Tony Blair; Amanda Ross with George Michael. She is smiling in both. She does seem open, friendly and unaffected, but she is not her usual carefree self today, she says. ‘I haven’t been sleeping well.’
Because she has been under siege? ‘Because I have been under siege.’
We are talking about what the tabloids call the ‘TV Quiz Phone Scam’. It started with Channel 4’s daily premium-rate phone-in quiz You Say We Pay – part of Richard & Judy – and ended with ITV suspending all its phone-in quiz shows, pending an investigation. The rot even appears to have spread to the BBC’s Blue Peter. In the case of Richard & Judy it is said they urged callers to continue entering the quiz even after the winners had been picked. I ask whether it was cock-up or conspiracy. ‘Cock-up. We are confident that when the report comes out Cactus will be exonerated.’
Because? ‘Because Simon and I had no way of knowing it was going on. We were getting the information the same times as the winners. We didn’t know the telephone company had the results earlier than us.’ She sighs. ‘I can’t comment on the details while we are under investigation, but I think the phone company has a lot to worry about because they are behind all those ITV shows that have been suspended.’
So she made no money from it? ‘The reason this has really got to me is that I am scrupulously fair. If we were doing it deliberately, as a scam, we would have found a way to make money. But we weren’t and we haven’t. It’s hurtful. There was some idiot writing in a literary column saying if she could cheat on You Say We Pay perhaps we should examine how the books are chosen for the Book Club and I thought: oh f— off! Really! I work so bloody hard choosing these books objectively and get no financial reward. OK, don’t have books on the telly. I don’t care. I’ll move on to something else. It’s galling. You’re probably seeing me at my most depressed and down because, at the moment, I am feeling “what’s the point?” ‘
Well, if I may, the point is that Amanda Ross has created a revolution in the nation’s reading habits, democratising the world of books so that readers with non-literary backgrounds can enjoy literature without feeling intimidated. Also, in expanding the total market for books, she has done something miraculous for British bookselling. Publishers everywhere must be hoping she doesn’t move on to something else.