The phone call would forever change the life of Robert Morgan, an English professor who had taught at Cornell University for nearly three decades.
On Jan. 10, 2000, a woman who failed to introduce herself began chatting with him about his fifth book, Gap Creek, a tale narrated in the voice of an older Southern woman. “I'd like to include it in my book club,” she said. “That sounds nice,” replied Morgan, assuming she was a Southern reader who found the theme familiar.
The woman finally disclosed her location—Chicago—and her identity: Oprah Winfrey.
“We decided it was a prank call,” Morgan recalls. “Then the second call came from her producer wanting us to fly back to Carolina to film a segment and to book my studio visit to Chicago. I asked my wife how many copies she thought this might sell—20,000? We had 500,000 copies in bookstores within a week.”
Within a month, Gap Creek had sold 650,000 copies, winning unprecedented attention and financial success for Morgan, who had been writing poetry since college, teaching since his mid 20s and publishing well-reviewed books for a decade. At 55, he was already a well-established, well-paid author. “I already had a new Volvo,” he jokes. “I had money in the bank.
“What it meant most was having all those new readers,” he adds. “I hadn't begun to win a large audience of female readers, and that gave me millions more. I got thousands of letters from all over the world, from Denmark, Germany, Australia, Canada. I still get hundreds today.”
For other selected authors, these monumental sales are a comet's flash—a brief, brilliant moment that illuminates a long and productive writing career. “I still feel the glow from it,” Morgan says, “but I was old enough to know that this was just a great stroke of luck—being called up by NPR and CNN and CBS for interviews. It would have been harder if I were younger. You would think this was normal!”
Winfrey started her book club in 1996 as a way to discuss a book she loved on The Oprah Winfrey Show each month, usually with the author and selected viewers. The books are predominantly fiction, often about women facing a struggle. The show's selections make considerable demands on publishers as well, such as a confidentiality clause. Publishers receive as little as a week's notice to re-design a cover with the Oprah's Book Club logo, and they must print and ship as many as 1 million copies across the country to coincide with the show's air date. The effort pays off, as every book—now 52 of them—becomes an overnight bestseller.
“Oprah selects a title … then everyone in America buys it,” wrote Richard Lacayo in Time. “This gives her the market clout of a Pentagon procurement officer.”
The publishing industry agrees. Not even the long-established Book of the Month Club or celebrity book reviewers like Kelly Ripa and Katie Couric carry the same starmaking power as Winfrey. While the talk-show host has unquestionably boosted the publishing industry's fortunes, her book club has also helped her differentiate Oprah from the slugfests and tabloid topics of other programs.
“A key part of it is that she has a very identifiable personality. She has clear likes and dislikes, and people know what they are,” says Charlotte Abbott, book news editor for Publishers Weekly. Readers need the help, Abbott says. Publishers pump out as many as 175,000 books a year. If someone they trust recommends a book, chances are good they'll reach for it, too.
“Book clubs are where it's at, and Oprah tuned in to that early,” says Abbott. “Education and transformation through reading are part of her mission. The intimacy of the relationship between the writer and the reader is paralleled by the intimacy Oprah has with her viewers. For many readers, going into a bookstore is like going into a wine store. Who are all these people? They have no idea where to start or what to choose. Oprah helps them.”
Some critics call Winfrey's choices middlebrow and predictable, often narratives of women who struggle and triumph. “What's wrong with that?” retorts Abbott, a former editor at William Morrow, a major publisher. “Oprah really raised the lowest common denominator. She has read and made books accessible to people who wouldn't otherwise read. She's not choosing bad books!”
When Winfrey selected Jonathan Franzen's third book, The Corrections, for the book club in September 2001, the author rejected the honor and publicly aired his opinion that Winfrey's choices were unsophisticated and were mainly for women. She canceled Franzen's appearance.
The book club, which ended in April 2002, was revived in June 2003 to showcase just three to five “classics” a year. It has offered a wide range of respected and thoughtful writers, everyone from Chile's Isabel Allende to Canadians Ann-Marie McDonald and Rohinton Mistry, Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat to South Africa's Alan Paton.
In an essay on AlterNet.org, a Web site of cultural criticism, author Kevin Smokler openly admits what many thought, but very few, still, will ever say aloud: “My province was contemporary literature, land of the 'important book' and the MFA from Columbia. Oprah's choices were something we readers pushed against—albeit with grudging respect. Liking an Oprah book meant allying yourself with the most obvious, least cool demographic in publishing. Outwardly, we smirked and claimed we wanted our books supported by Guggenheim Fellowships, thank you, not commercials for Palmolive. Yet as the evidence mounted, it became harder to ignore how Oprah vigorously promoted literary mainstays like Toni Morrison and Ernest Gaines, and how demographic slam dunks like Danielle Steel and Mary Higgins Clark were curiously absent from her list.”
Now Winfrey's choices highlight those authors commonly found on college or high school reading lists. Her most recent selection was Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina, originally published in 1875. “The impact of Oprah's selection is that one sells a lot of books,” says Richard Pevear, the Paris-based translator (with his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky) of the new Penguin edition chosen. “And the majority of people who buy them would not have bought them otherwise. So that Anna Karenina has found readers in the most unexpected places is a good thing.”
“It's fantastic,” says Kathryn Court, president and publisher of Penguin Books, which had already commissioned the new translation and seen annual sales—pre-Oprah—of about 2,000 copies. After Anna Karenina was chosen, an additional million copies, each with a new red paper band attached by hand, were rushed into print. When the show chose Steinbeck's 1952 classic East of Eden, also published by Penguin, the number of new copies in print jumped from 80,000 to 1.8 million.
The day the show aired, Anderson's Bookshop in Napierville, Ill., sold 70 copies. The phone began ringing with requests, Assistant Manager Doris Blechman told the Associated Press. “When I said, 'Do you know what it is? They said no. And when I said, 'Do you care?' they said no.”
Viewers are incredibly loyal to Winfrey, says Court. “Whatever she says, they believe.” Like Abbott, Court feels the host's picks are essential in helping readers decide to buy something. “One of the greatest problems of the industry is that there are so many books produced and so few vehicles to find out about them.”
Jonathan Karp, editor in chief at Random House, has seen five of his books selected. In September 2000, it was Open House, a book about the interior life of a midlife woman, by Elizabeth Berg. “She is a writer who is beloved by her readers and someone we had publicized for over a decade, but her sales exponentially increased [with the book club]. She gained a much wider audience, for which we are immensely grateful,” says Karp.
Not only has Winfrey officially chosen books for her club, but she also plugs non-fiction on her regular shows. Other Random House recipients who have enjoyed Winfrey's favor include Po Bronson, author of What Should I Do With My Life?, a non-fiction guide for those seeking a vocation, and Kenneth M. Pollack, author of The Gathering Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq—hardly a work of chick-lit. (Pollack appeared on Oprah three times, in fact.)
“If she gets behind a book, it's an avalanche,” adds Karp. “She has a massive audience that actually listens to her. She has tremendous credibility, she makes sense, and she has excellent producers who are ahead of the culture. No one compares to her.”
The most elusive aspect of the “Oprah effect” on publishing is quantifying it in dollars, especially in an industry of almost pathological reticence on that subject. No publisher or bookseller contacted would reveal Oprah-related profits.
“It's not Hollywood. It's not the recording industry,” says Abbott of Publishers Weekly. “The money is so small.”
Ina Stern of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C., agreed. A small but well-regarded publisher, Algonquin has had three books chosen, including Gap Creek. The profits from Morgan's book, admits Stern, an associate publisher, “allowed us to move from a small, quaint mill to a nice new office.”
“At this point, booksellers know to be well-stocked in the Oprah selections, and we alert them to her choices as soon as we are notified,” says Meg Zelickson Smith, a spokesman for the 2,000-member American Booksellers Association, which represents independent booksellers nationwide.
But Smith agrees that, while the number of printed copies is impressive, the resulting profits from being named an Oprah's Book Club selection often are not. “Bookselling is a business of very narrow margins. Profits per book vary depending on kinds of books and the discounts offered by the publishers but can amount to, after inventory expenses, rent, and other costs, just pennies per book.”
Yet the “Oprah effect” lingers long after a book has left the bestseller lists, says Russell Perreault, director of publicity for Vintage, a house that has had seven books chosen by Winfrey from 1997 to 2002. “I think it still matters. You are forever after one of the Oprah's Book Club authors,” Perreault says. “It has a great cachet.”