There are quite a number of plug-a-book shows on BBC Radio 4 (e.g. Start the Week, Midweek, Thinking Allowed, etc.), which is, I suppose, what you’d expect from the country's leading talk radio channel. Several times a week, a few lucky authors are invited by the likes of Andrew Marr, Libby Purves and Laurie Taylor to spend ten minutes saying whatever they like about their latest book.
Since yesterday, I’ve been twittering and blogging about how even a short interview on a fairly obscure part of the BBC website can work short-term wonders on book sales.
Before it was mentioned on the BBC website, my book Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy was languishing at around 245,000th on Amazon (UK).
Two hours later, it had shot up 220,000 places to 25,000th; two hours after that it rose to its highest place ever at 1,841 and pushed Lend Me Your Ears into second place in their ‘Public Speaking’ best-sellers list.
Impressive though this may seem, it pales into insignificance compared with what can happen after a few minutes on Radio 4. A couple of years ago, I was interviewed about speechwriting on Saturday Live by Fi Glover. When I mentioned Lend Me Your Ears, she told me I wasn’t supposed to be plugging my book, to which I replied that I thought this was the whole point of Radio 4.
Three hours later, I had a look to see if there’d been any move from its placing at about 4,000th, where it had been for a week or two on Amazon. To my astonishment, it had risen to 2nd – not 2nd in books on public speaking, but it had made it to the 2nd bestselling book in Amazon’s entire UK list. And there It stayed there for about half a day before beginning to slide down the rankings.
But the net result was that my publishers had to reprint it three days after the broadcast, and sold about 1,000 copies in the next seven days.
So there’s no doubt at all that the BBC, despite the fact that it’s not a commercial broadcaster and doesn’t officially advertise anything, does in fact advertise books. What's more, they must know what an impact their plug-a-book shows can have on sales, and the question on which I think we could do with a bit more transparency is, quite simply this: how do they go about selecting which of the thousands of possible authors get the tiny number of such important slots?
It would be nice to think that they operate with the kind of studied neutrality you might expect from a public service broadcaster. But at least two things make me wonder just how detached they really are.
The first goes back 25 years, when I was involved in coaching a woman who had never made a speech before to make a speech at the SDP annual conference in 1984. The fact that she got a standing ovation became a news story, but bookings for one or both of us to appear on various BBC radio and television programmes were suddenly cancelled when they realised that the training had been organised by, and was to be televised a couple of weeks later by, one of their commercial rivals, Granada Television.
The second reason for wondering about their detachment comes from the past two or three weeks. In one Radio 4 book review programme, the main inteviewee was a novelist who, before starting to write novels, had been a presenter on a BBC Television arts programme. At about the same time, Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime featured nightly readings from a novel by someone who used to run a London advertising agency, whose clients included one of our three main political parties.
Whether or not these two authors are better at writing novels than they were in their previous jobs, or whether they are any better than all the others who also publish novels each year, I have no idea. But I can’t help wondering whether they are part of a London social network that includes radio producers who find it easier to put people they know on their shows than the hundreds of other worthy candidates who never get a look in when it comes to such valuable exposure.
It’s well known that bookshops like Waterstones charge publishers huge sums of money to have their books displayed on tables near the entrance to their stores, a practice that doesn’t seem very far removed from the Payola scandals in the music industry all those years ago.
I’m not suggesting something similar is going on at the BBC. But at a time when the corporation is showing signs of becoming a bit more open about and accountable for their executives’ salaries and expense accounts, I don’t think it would do any harm to have some kind of investigation, or at least a good deal more transparency, on the question how candidates actually get selected for their plug-a-book programmes.
And, if it sounds as though I'm biting a hand that feeds me, I should make it clear that it doesn't happen as often as I'd like it to, and, on the rare occasions that it does, the rations don't last for very long.