TRAILBLAZER: Talking pages - Relaxwithabook's Stephen Carroll tells Amanda Nottage how author interviews can boost sales of novels, and how his firm is making this sales tool available on digital channels

Like any good novel, a story needs a strong opening to get the reader hooked, then it must keep up the momentum to retain the interest and imagination of the page-turner.

Once upon a time, relaxwithabook was an internet start-up that offered interviews with authors, both new and well-established, to help encourage book-lovers to buy the old-fashioned papery things with words in.

Since its launch in March 2000, the online programme has featured more than 500 authors, from the spine-chilling Ian Rankin to the fat-tongued Jamie Oliver. Now the story takes a twist.

At Christmas, the company decided to help its users relax a little more by launching a relaxwithabook radio programme. Available on Sky digital channel 905, the soothing tones of presenter and co-founder David Freeman, together with the authors in question, are broadcast in a loop. Each day follows a theme, such as thrillers and crime.

But that's not the final chapter in the story. Relaxwithabook has this year launched an interactive TV book programme on video-on-demand service HomeChoice as part of a two-month trial, and has also unveiled a site on Hull-based service Kingston interactive (KIT).

Through HomeChoice's Life&Style and History&Nature areas, viewers can choose which authors they see. KIT offers a TV version of the web site in its shopping area, where viewers can select a genre and watch a specially edited five-minute interview.

Due to the closed environment of the HomeChoice service, viewers keen to buy a book have to call a free phone number; KIT viewers are able to choose between calling or buying online.

As with the web site, orders are fulfilled by book wholesaler Gardners.

"From the start, we felt that the purpose of interviewing authors is that they are a trigger for book sales,

explains Stephen Carroll, relaxwithabook's co-founder and commercial director. "In a celebrity-driven age, authors are often celebrities. We really want to use the author because, in many ways, they are the best salespeople for books. It also helps to draw out a personality."

Relaxwithabook has syndicated deals with partners such as Guardian Unlimited and It is also in talks with cable providers ntl and Telewest, and has the option of upgrading its channel on Sky digital to a more visual offering in the future. Advertising and sponsorship is being considered.

"We are being contacted by some sponsors as our themed approach has been well received. Sponsorship will increasingly become part of the mix," says Carroll. "Our site is interactive and a creative way of marketing books. Publishing is perhaps a little stuck in its ways, and quite trade-led. Much more could be learned from how film launches make use of the web."

Trials are under way in Oxford for in-store kiosks, allowing users to scan in a book's barcode, settle down with a coffee and watch an interview with the author. The company is also looking to extend its service into the US and Europe to reach ex-pats and English speaking users.

Freeman sees authors growing as brands in themselves. "We have the technology that if you're interested you can pull in the information that interests you,

he says. "The retail book market is worth about £1.85 billion in the UK. It's a big business, and you have to fight your corner."


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