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Sharing Her Love for Books

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In 1996, when Oprah Winfrey decided to share her love of books with her viewing audience, no one could have predicted the enormous impact she would have on readers-not to mention on booksellers, publishers and authors.
Always an avid reader, Ms. Winfrey chose books she loved and encouraged viewers to accompany her on literary journeys, which ended with on-camera discussions with the author and a few selected viewers. It was a simple process that exploded in popularity.
So great was her reach that book clubs, once made up mainly of retired folks meeting at the local library, seemed for a while to become the leisure time activity for the in crowd.
In the first six years of the club, her selections included works of well-known authors such as Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and previously obscure writers such as Andre Dubus III, author of “House of Sand and Fog”; Janet Fitch, who wrote “White Oleander”; and Jacquelyn Mitchard, who wrote “The Deep End of the Ocean.” In a perhaps not coincidental burst of synergy, all three books became major studio films.
When Ms. Winfrey received the American Association of Publishers’ Honors Award last year, she gave an acceptance speech that had audience members “literally on their feet screaming,” according to former Congresswoman and current association President Pat Schroeder.
It’s hard to say whether the publishers’ reaction was due more to Ms. Winfrey’s legendary charisma or her ability to sell books. With 23 million viewers in 107 countries, that’s a lot of potential readers.
“There are 3,000 new titles a week, so Oprah does everyone this big favor,” said Ms. Schroeder. “She gets people into bookstores and libraries, and maybe they’ll look around and buy other books, make it a habit.”
Authors and publishers love her and so do readers who had given up reading due to busy lives or intellectual laziness. Many of them have posted items on Ms. Winfrey’s Oprah.com Web site saying they are indebted to her for their renewed interest in reading.
Ms. Winfrey’s love of reading began at age 3 and never stopped. “Getting my library card was like getting American citizenship,” she once reportedly said. While ratings for the book club’s televised discussions aren’t stellar, Ms. Winfrey has stuck with it.
Selected books sport her endorsement sticker on their covers-an endorsement sure to boost sales and prestige among readers. That sticker, in fact, created a sticky situation with “The Corrections” author Jonathan Franzen a few years back.
In a mild dustup, Mr. Franzen made it known that he was less than enthusiastic about his book being included as a selection of Ms. Winfrey’s book club, implying that his book was in a different class than those typically chosen.
Those expecting Ms. Winfrey to strike back were disappointed. As always she took the high road, releasing a statement that said in part: “It was never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict.” The book remained a book club selection, but there was no dinner, televised or otherwise, with the author. Mr. Franzen has since stated through the press that he handled the situation poorly due to his lack of experience.
His initial standoffish reaction to Ms. Winfrey’s embrace of his work was a rare exception to the gratitude that almost all authors show for her attention.
Still, after six years and 46 books (all of which reached the best-seller lists), Ms. Winfrey apparently began to feel the thrill was gone. Admitting that the pressure to select a book a million people might like had become overwhelming, she decided in April 2002 to officially end the book club.
There was some ambivalence. In a speech she gave to the AAP, she described the club’s shuttering as “losing a really good friend.” Then, during the 14-month break, Ms. Winfrey read “East of Eden” and was frustrated that she didn’t have the club in which to discuss it.
So back it came.
In describing her reason for reinstating the club, she said to her audience about the John Steinbeck book, “I think this may be the best book I’ve ever read. I brought the book club back to share it with you.”
In the end, she just missed the books.
So in June 2003 Mr. Steinbeck’s epic became the book of the hour-literally. Within an hour of her announcement, “Eden” jumped from No. 2,356,000 on Amazon’s Web site to No. 113. It hit No. 2 by the end of the day.
“We got the call on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, and I was so excited I ran around the office trying to find people to tell,” said Maureen Donnelly, head of publicity for Penguin, the publisher of the paperback version of the classic chosen for the book club.
USA Today’s headline proclaimed, “Oprah Helps Steinbeck Outsell Hillary.”
The publishing house had to go to press three times to satisfy demand. “Typically, the title sells 50,000 copies a year, but we went up to 1.7 million. The Oprah effect was major,” said Ms. Donnelly. “She really does a great service to literacy, investing her time and effort into selecting books.”
`The Test of Time’
The Oprah Book Club relaunch arrived with a new standard. Instead of popular fiction, selected books will be “great reads that have stood the test of time,” said Carly Ubersox, spokesperson for Harpo Productions, Ms. Winfrey’s company. Publishers greeted the news with great enthusiasm, despite their fear that viewers might be turned off by the new criteria.
There were other changes as well. Rather than selecting a new book each month, Ms. Winfrey decided that choosing only three to five books per year would give readers more time to “steep themselves in a past classic.”
Her enhanced Web site has a dedicated link that encourages discussion groups and study guides. And those who join the online club receive weekly e-mails from Ms. Winfrey. Currently, there are 330,000 members in the online club.
There is also a new travel component in which Ms. Winfrey takes a few viewers to visit an author’s hometown or a place where a story was set. For “East of Eden,” she and her guests-chosen through letters or e-mails they wrote to the Web site reflecting a deep understanding and caring for the material-journeyed to Monterey, Calif., and met with Tom Steinbeck, the author’s son.
In January Ms. Winfrey announced her second selection since the relaunch-Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The AAP’s Ms. Schroeder said, “I’m very impressed with her taste. She picks great books. Certainly not lightweight beach reading.”