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Oprah Ends Book Club, With a Slap at Publishing World

April 08, 2002|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was bad enough for the book industry that Oprah Winfrey announced on Friday that she would not continue her star-making book club in its current form. But in the eyes of some, the reason Winfrey gave--after championing the book world for so long--smarts. "It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share," Winfrey said in a statement about why she was ending Oprah's Book Club.

Nora Rawlinson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, said she found Winfrey's comment "very disappointing, and I think publishers will, and should, take offense at that."

Winfrey began her book club in September 1996, personally reading and selecting each book that gets a featured spot on her TV show. Each of her selections has become an instant bestseller. Her choices have included books written by famous names such as Toni Morrison and Isabel Allende.

She also has singled out unknowns such as Christina Schwarz, who wrote part of her first novel, "Drowning Ruth," while living in Los Angeles; and Los Angeles writer Janet Fitch, a first-time novelist whose "White Oleander" got the nod in 1999.

"For every book she picked," Rawlinson noted, "it was a guaranteed sale of 600,000 to 800,000 copies on top of what the books already sold. That's a significant number in publishing."

Winfrey's influence is such that when one of the authors she recently chose for her book club reacted with ambivalence--some would say, a highbrow disdain--a huge to-do ensued. Last year, Winfrey named the novel, "The Corrections," by literary hotshot Jonathan Franzen, as one of her selections. But Franzen made comments for which he later apologized, complaining for instance, that he wasn't happy about having the Oprah Book Club sticker on his book, and that some of Winfrey's choices have been "schmaltzy." As a result, Winfrey canceled his appearance on her show, and Franzen was forced to defend himself in the media.

According to a New York Times story in October 2001, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published 90,000 copies of "The Corrections," and printed 680,000 more after it made Oprah's list, 500,000 of which could be attributed to the endorsement. At a retail price of $26 each, then, the endorsement has meant about $13 million in gross sales.

Over the years, Winfrey's choices have been dismissed by some as having a populist bent rather than a literary one. But whether one agreed with her choices, no one can deny her impact, pointed out Toni Garvey, president of the Public Library Assn., a division of the American Library Assn., which works with Winfrey's staff. ( Winfrey asks the publisher of her book club selection to donate 10,000 of the books to libraries; the American Library Assn. helps distribute the books).

"Whenever anyone with that wide of an audience, when someone like Oprah talks about books and reading, everybody benefits," Garvey said. "The author benefits, the publishers benefit and public libraries benefit. We might be scrambling to get enough copies of [the choice], but, boy, isn't that a horrible problem to have."

Though Winfrey will no longer make regular picks--her book club selections had been less frequent, even before Friday's announcement--she will consider featuring books that she feels strongly about, a spokeswoman said.

The fact that Winfrey has not closed the door is good news, said Patricia Johnson, executive vice president of Knopf Publishing. "We are clearly all very saddened," Johnson said. "Oprah ... did an absolutely amazing job of bringing really good books to a breadth of audience that many of these books would not have reached." Winfrey steered readers to books like a trusted friend who manages to find the gem that is overlooked by the book critics or the academics, said Valerie Iravani, a San Diego fan. "She is so well grounded. She is not afraid of life," said Iravani, 41, a customer service manager. "Oprah gets right into your living room, and she's sitting on the couch next to you."

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Winfrey said she counted her book club as among her greatest achievements. "It's one thing to win an Emmy and special awards; it's another thing for somebody who hasn't picked up a book since they were forced to in high school to read 'Song of Solomon' and start thinking differently about their own life as a result."

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