Brits Buy Book TV

Kevin Canfield

Apart from brief interludes on The Oprah Winfrey Show and NBC’s Today, books don’t often end up on U.S. television. The recent launch of the Quill Awards—a new national book award program sponsored by Reed Business Information and NBC that will include a televised ceremony in October—may have authors feeling like celebrities, but an entire network show devoted to the written word is still a rarity. Not so in the United Kingdom, where several programs are proving that literature can make compelling television.

Giving would-be novelists the talent show treatment, LitIdol is a literary contest modeled after American Idol, the popular television show. The contest was launched last year at the London Book Fair, and was open to unpublished writers everywhere. The winner, Canadian fiction writer Paul Cavanagh, went on to sign a book deal with HarperCollins Canada.

Writers submit up to 10,000 words of their novels along with a synopsis, professional readers choose a shortlist of five finalists, and those writers give a reading of their work in front of a judging panel, which is televised, and the winner is announced

The winner of the 2005 contest, which was open only to writers of crime fiction and thrillers, will be announced at the London Book Fair on March 14, and will receive something even harder to come by than a pile of cash: representation by London’s Curtis Brown literary agency.

The idea, says Alistair Burtenshaw, exhibition director of the London Book Fair, is to find undiscovered talent. “My primary hope for LitIdol is that it continues to uncover great writing talent from around the world that might otherwise have not come to the attention of publishers and therefore readers,” Burtenshaw says. To drum up publicity, LitIdol’s organizers hired Tony Cowell, the brother of American Idol’s famously tart-tongued panelist Simon Cowell, to serve as a judge.

Tony Cowell is the host of another literary television event, Between the Covers. Launched by the British television network ITV, the show reportedly will broadcast features about authors and the publishing industry. A recent article in a Scottish newspaper suggested that the still-developing program will have a distinct reality-TV feel. Either way, the program figures to garner lots of attention when it debuts in the spring.

In addition to LitIdol and Between the Covers, British television offers Richard and Judy, a popular show that features a book club that has selected authors like David Mitchell and Jodi Picoult. And the BBC is planning Page Turners, a show hosted by longtime BBC personality Jeremy Vine. According to the BBC, “a celebrity advocate or author will introduce and champion each featured book to Jeremy, as well as to the studio audience and the viewers at home."