Does Oprah still have her book mojo?

Many in the book world are eager to discover if Oprah's book club – after a two-year hiatus and now on the lower-profile OWN network – will still draw readers in massive numbers.

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    Oprah Winfrey picked 'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed for her first book club selection after the group went on a two-year hiatus. Oprah calls her new book club "way different from the old book club," saying, "This time it's an interactive, online club for our digital world."
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Publishers, book publicists, authors: rejoice. The Queen of book promotion is back.

That’s right, Oprah Winfrey, the publishing world’s unrivaled trendsetter, is reviving her bestseller-inducing book club after a two-year hiatus, leaving publishers and publicists salivating at the prospect of reaping the rewards of the “Oprah Touch” should their author’s book be chosen next.

Her first pick? “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir recounting the author’s epic hike up the Pacific Crest Trail as she struggles with her mother’s death and a failed marriage.

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“I love this book,” Winfrey writes in the July issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, which highlights the new book club on its cover and features an interview with Strayed. “I want to shout it from the mountaintop. I want to shout it from the Web. In fact, I love this book so much and want to talk about it so much, I knew I had to reinvent my book club.”

Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 launches Monday with digital elements like e-books, social media outreach on Facebook and Twitter, and cross-media promotion. Winfrey taped an online video announcement of the re-launch, calling the book “stimulating, thought-provoking, soul-enhancing.”

“This is way different from the old book club,” she said in the video announcement, posted Friday on her website. "This time it's an interactive, online club for our digital world."

And this time Winfrey won’t have the clout of her 12-million strong network television audience, a popular syndicated talk show, or the momentum of a beloved book club with devoted fans.

Which makes this new enterprise an attempt to answer the – literally – million-dollar question: Does Oprah still have her book mojo?

Previously, while she still had her syndicated network TV show, Winfrey had an almost magical ability to sell books. Between 1996 and 2011, she had chosen 70 books for her wildly popular book club. The selections, kept secret until a “big reveal,” were trumpeted with fanfare on a show that averaged 5 million to 6 million viewers when it ended last year and up to 12 million at its peak. The impact? According to Fordham University marketing professor Al Greco, sales of “Oprah editions” of the 70 titles in her first book club totaled some 55 million copies, reports USA Today.

Toni Morrison, who had four novels chosen, says she got a bigger sales boost from Winfrey than from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993,” USA Today adds.

It was so spectacular a phenomenon it was dubbed “the Oprah Effect,” or “the Oprah Touch,” the book Queen’s singular ability to pluck little-known authors like Anita Shreve or Jacquelyn Mitchard from a pile, make them into household names in a few short weeks with her priceless Oprah seal of sanction, along the way instantly skyrocketing sales to more than one million copies, rarefied territory for any title.

“When Ms. Winfrey halted her daytime talk show last year, book publicists mourned the loss of what was easily the most desirable platform to promote an author,” the New York Times wrote in its Media Decoder blog.

Can she do it again?

Sure, she’s got a 24-hour cable network with her name on it, a weekly show, and a still-popular magazine and website. But the show, “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” draws an audience that ranges between a few hundred thousand to about 1 million, depending on the guest, paltry compared to her 12-million-strong audience at the peak of her network television career. And after two years away from Winfrey’s popular book club, will readers be ready to bounce back on demand?

If they’re anything like Winfrey, they just might.

"My first thought watching the video is that this is a woman who really misses talking about books with an audience of readers," Carol Fitzgerald, founder of BookReporter.com, told USA Today. "As for impact … it will be interesting to see. The syndicated show had a pre-engaged group of readers who were tuned in for a specific experience with Oprah each day. While the interaction proposed here is multidimensional, it's also a lot more fragmented."

And with “Wild,” Winfrey may have chosen a book that resonates with many viewers. In it, Strayed sets off for a treacherous, months-long solo 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave Desert up to Oregon to confront a life that appears to be falling apart – her mother had died of cancer and her marriage to a good man had dissolved. It is, writes the Times, “the kind of story of resilience and self-invention that Ms. Winfrey has championed,” and we might add, that her fans adore.

As for the re-invention of her book club, signs suggest Winfrey may yet be successful: “Wild” went from No. 173 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list Friday evening to No. 12 Monday morning.

As Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Knopf, the publisher of “Wild,” told the New York Times, “When it comes to a book, there is no better recommendation engine than a nod from Oprah.”

Some things, it seems, never change.

Watch Oprah’s video announcement here.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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