What Oprah has done for books

Her impact on the book world was called the "Oprah Effect" for good reason – everything she touched became publishing gold.

George Burns/Harpo Productions/AP
James Frey returned to Oprah's show to apologize for inaccuracies in his memoir "A Million Little Pieces." Since his appearance there, his latest book, “The Final Testament of the Holy Bible,” has risen from 10,286 on Amazon's sales ranking to 253.

She was like a fairy godmother to the book world: With a gushing endorsement and an "O" book seal publishers clamored for, Oprah Winfrey reinvigorated the book club, rocketed little-known authors to stardom, fetched a windfall for the publishing industry as a whole, and encouraged a nation to read.

It was called the "Oprah Effect" for good reason – everything she touched became publishing gold.

Now that she’s leaving – The Oprah Winfrey Show ends its 25-year run on Wednesday – what of her determined book boostering?

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Publishers are eager to find out. Oprah’s effect on book reading and sales is almost supernatural.

Oprah’s Book Club began Sept. 17, 1996, with Jacquelyn Mitchard’s “The Deep End of the Ocean,” about the kidnapping of a child.

• Since then, she’s selected 70 books for Oprah’s Book Club.

• Fifty-nine of her books made The top 10 on USA Today’s bestseller list

• Twenty-two of her books were No. 1 on USA Today’s bestseller list

Toni Morrison, whose books were chosen four times for Oprah’s Book Club (“Song of Solomon,” “Paradise,” “The Bluest Eye,” and “Sula” were all picked), got a bigger sales boost from Oprah than from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Among Oprah’s other successes was bringing Leo Tolstoy’s 19th-century love story “Anna Karenina” to the No. 1 spot on many bestseller lists, including USA Today’s. She also helped sales of a little-known collection of short stories about Africa soar. “Say You’re One of Them” by Uwem Akpan had an initial print of 77,000. After Oprah endorsed the book, 780,000 more copies were printed.

Perhaps most telling, Oprah has helped sell some 55 million copies of her book club picks since 1996, according to Fordham University marketing professor Al Greco. “And there wasn’t a James Patterson or a John Grisham among them,” he told USA Today.

“She made book discussions interesting, educational, and entertaining,” Greco said. “Literature professors can be interesting and educational, but are they entertaining?”

Oprah’s Book Club certainly has been.

There was the headline-making James Frey controversy, in which Oprah excoriated Mr. Frey for fabricating parts of his memoir “A Million Little Pieces.” She had Frey back on air in her final season to apologize. “I got ambushed,” Frey said, adding, “In some ways I deserved it.” Since then, Frey’s latest book, “The Final Testament of the Holy Bible,” has risen from 10,286 on Amazon's sale ratings to 253.

And then there was Jonathan Franzen, whose book “The Corrections” was chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick in 2001. Mr. Franzen greeted the news with less than full enthusiasm, warning his work “was a hard book for that audience,” and warily questioning the desirability of seeing Oprah’s “logo of corporate ownership” on his book’s cover.

Oprah canceled Franzen’s on-air book club dinner. He later apologized and Oprah again selected his novel “Freedom” for her book club. Chastened, he appeared on the show, apologized, and, like the Oprah-Frey on-air rapprochement, Oprah and Franzen went through a public reconciliation. After that, both Franzen novels soared to the top of multiple bestseller lists.

The books benefited from the drama, though Oprah has acknowledged that her book club shows rarely garnered her best ratings.

What does that mean for future book club shows? Will Oprah continue her literary endorsements on OWN, her new cable network?

Publishers can breathe a sigh of relief. Oprah told USA Today she is “going to try to develop a show for books and authors,” though she provided no details and the OWN show likely won’t garner the ratings her network TV talk show has. “Some things you do because it is necessary,” Oprah said, acknowledging that her book club shows were rarely her most popular. “We've done OK with them. We found the more I could connect the author and the book to the audience, the better the numbers would be.”

Stay tuned for more Kleenex-worthy couch time.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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