Amanda Ross is the queen of the TV book club. A successful TV producer of 30 years’ standing, Ross created the original Richard and Judy Book Club format that ran for six years, during which time she helped turn more than 50 books into bestsellers and made millionaires of at least ten authors.
In 2006, at the height of the Richard and Judy Book Club’s popularity on television, Ross was named the most influential person in publishing by The Observer – recognition that she’d delivered a £185 million boost to the trade.
Now she’s starting again with Zoë Ball. Over ten weeks, as part of her ITV show, Ball and her guests (including David Walliams, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Meera Syal) discuss one of ten shortlisted books, chosen by Ross.
Eventually, viewers will be asked to vote for their overall favourite. “We’ve always chosen accessible celebrities rather than experts because then it makes everyone at home think: ‘If they can talk about books, so can I, and my opinion is valid,’” Ross says.
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The Zoë Ball Book Club has been up and running for the past four weeks, so we’re nearly halfway through the ten chosen titles – which include Never Greener, the debut novel from actor Ruth Jones, and the memoir of ex-junior doctor Adam Kay, This Is Going to Hurt.
From historical fiction and memoir to Scandi noir, Ross, 55, picks books that keep her up all night. “If I come down in the morning and say, ‘Oh, there’s this great bit…’ to my husband and 12-year-old son, you know it’s worth passing on to others. Of course, I had to choose some bankers, like Adam Kay. But five are first-time novelists, there are equal women and men, and we’re trying to champion British writers.”
She openly declares that she doesn’t like the word “literary” and rarely reads book reviews. A crack team of experts in the book industry, aged 20–70, helped her select the Zoë Ball list. In the 90s, the only book shows on TV featured people “in darkened rooms having late-night, esoteric discussions,” Ross laughs, “and that doesn’t make ordinary people feel empowered to talk about books.”
To help readers she alternates light and shade, and “thick” and “thin” volumes, so that we can keep pace. “My criteria for choosing books has always been ‘the sofa chat’ – ie by the end, you think it has been a worthwhile read, and it has given you the confidence to try a new genre, but most importantly it gives you something new to talk about.
“When you read you are transported. No one can tell me what the lead character looks like better than me. It’s in my head – and that makes you feel great.”
Growing up in a council flat in Essex, Ross had what she describes as not a very happy childhood, but could read and write by the time she went to school. When she exhausted the school library, her mother joined a book club on her behalf. Later, Ross graduated with a degree in drama from Birmingham University.
It was while Ross was producing Richard & Judy, Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan’s Channel 4 daytime show, that she spotted the impact Oprah Winfrey’s book club was having in the USA and, more significantly, saw that every time a book featured on Richard & Judy it shot up the sales charts (Waterstones and Amazon would ask to be tipped off if a book was going to appear).
So she launched the Richard and Judy Book Club. In the world of literary publishing, it caused ripples because of its commercial power. But Ross is proud of her independence: Ofcom regulations mean that there can be no financial transactions attached to her selections. She credits Specsavers for sponsoring the Zoë Ball Book Club website and helping to promote it: “They want to be advocates for literacy, too.”
She says she’s surprised by Richard and Judy’s in-store Book Club with WHSmith. “It was a paid-for campaign. I think Richard and Judy found it hard to understand that lots of authors on the show were becoming millionaires, while we couldn’t make any money out of it because you can’t be paid for your recommendations. It’s slightly disappointing that afterwards they used the integrity of the Book Club and went into a paid-for campaign in WHSmith. People don’t realise that to be part of that sort of campaign publishers have to pay £25,000.”
Ross has been making television for 30 years; we meet at the offices of Cactus TV, the production company she runs with her husband, Simon Ross (brother of Jonathan and Paul Ross). Housed in a former chapel in south-west London, the studio complex hums with energy. Saturday Kitchen Live, Spring Kitchen with Tom Kerridge, and The Hairy Bikers’ Food Tour of Britain are among the company’s hits.
After the demise of Richard & Judy in 2009, Ross created several other TV book clubs and awards. But she has kept a lower profile recently. Eight years ago, after multiple miscarriages and cycles of IVF, she and Simon adopted two boys under the age of five, from the British care system. “We were adamant we wanted to adopt from here; so many boys in care end up in prison – and there’s a very strong link to illiteracy.”
Being a first-time mum in your mid-50s is tiring, she says wryly. “Your ‘me time’ gets pushed down and down.” But her eyes shine as she describes reading at night with her older son.
She knows the industry is watching to see if she still has the Midas touch when it comes to books. But reading is a sacred occupation, she insists. “You can travel the world without leaving your armchair. I’m very proud of these books as literary works. They’re incredibly well written, and even with the light reads, you’re going to feel quite clever when you finish them!”
The Zoë Ball Book Club airs during her show on Saturdays and Sundays at 8.30am on ITV1