The comfortably literary humanities majors of the world can yawn and declare that they don't need Oprah to tell them what to read, but the person who hasn't picked up a book since high school, who has never read for pure pleasure, knows, because of Oprah, the transforming power of books.
(Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon.com)
In September of 1996, American talk show host Oprah Winfrey announced her "book club"-- one show a month dedicated to discussing a work of fiction. She would announce the book 3 or 4 weeks ahead of time, allowing her audience to go out and read it, as "homework" for the upcoming "Oprah's Book Club" show. The episode that featured the book emulated a real book club-- several readers (selected from among the thousands who applied via the show's Web site) were invited to ask questions and share reactions, with Oprah herself leading the discussion-- with the added bonus of the actual author appearing on the show as well.
The American publishing industry didn't know what hit it.
The Oprah Winfrey Show reaches 22 million viewers worldwide, with 13 million daily viewers in the United States. And her fans are devoted. Oprah herself didn't just announce a book. She would testify to the book's emotional power. "I loved reading this, and you will too," she might say. Her first book pick, Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean , had 100,000 copies in print. After her show, 3 million more had to be printed. Her fifth pick, Ursula Hegi's Stones from the River, had sold only 160,000 copies pre-Oprah; post-Oprah there are 1.3 million in print. Publisher's Weekly estimated that a pick by Oprah could boost sales on an average of 500,000 copies, a phenomenon that the industry called "The Oprah Effect." Unknown authors became overnight bestsellers if Oprah loved their book, and classic novels reached new audiences. (19 years after it was published, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon became a bestseller again in 1996 and went through 10 reprintings when selected by Ms. Winfrey).
Distributors had trouble meeting demand, especially as the show kept future selections a closely guarded secret. Eventually, the publishers worked out a system where bookstores would order copies of Oprah's Book Club selections without even knowing what they were, and the books were shipped to distributors simply labelled "Oprah Book Club Selection #16" with instructions not to open until a specified date. To maximize sales, not only would bookstores devote special tables to Oprah's selections, but during the month that the book was selected for discussion, the books themselves would be imprinted with a golden "O" (Much to the dismay of some writers, notably Jonathan Franzen, who objected to Ms. Winfrey's brand on his work).
Critics of the Book Club complained that despite notable authors who made the list (Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Ernest J. Gaines), Oprah mainly selected books not on their literary merit, but on whether they addressed her issues: race, self-image, women's empowerment, overcoming family trauma. And that having a talk show host hold sway over the American publishing industry was not fair to dozens of undiscovered, languishing authors-- or even to the "chosen" authors (there was no spillover effect of consumers to purchase more books by the same author... apparently, Book Club "members" wanted to read only what Oprah was reading).
Supporters of the club pointed out that no one else on television was telling adults to get up from in front of the TV set and go read a book.
In 1999, the National Book Foundation gave its 50th Anniversary Gold Medal to Oprah Winfrey for her contribution to reading (and the book industry).
In April of 2002, Winfrey announced the end of her monthly feature, announcing it was hard to keep a monthly schedule up choosing one book she really got excited about (On a side note, Oprah show producer Dianne Atkinson Hudson admitted that the Book Club show was typically the lowest rated during the month).
The announcement caused one publishing executive to exclaim "Holy shit!" At an average of $10 per book (Oprah tended to choose paperbacks) and 500,000 extra sales per month, the show was a monthly shot in the arm to an industry with a low profit margin. Random House alone, with 21 of the 46 titles selected, had received a windfall of $100 million over the 6 year run. (While Ms. Winfrey's privately held corporation, Harpo, Inc., has partnerships with Hearst, Disney, and Oxygen, she and her company had no direct financial ties to the book publishers of the titles she selected).
Other media have attempted fill the book club gap: The Today Show, Good Morning America, Live with Regis and Kelly, as well as Essence magazine and the newspaper USA Today have started book clubs since Oprah's announcement. However, so far there has been only a slight boost in sales noted from these book clubs, but none to the extent of the Oprah Effect.)
Oprah still mentions books on her show (often related to pop psychology, personal finance, or nutrition and diet) and there is still an Oprah effect: One Harper Collins representative noted that their book, Die Broke, became a brisk seller without any publicity effort on the publisher's part, thanks to a mention on the show.
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Williams, Mary Elizabeth. "Silence the Snobs!" Salon.com. 12 November 1999. <http://www.salon.com/books/feature/1999/11/12/oprahpro/index.html> (30 December 2002)
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