She got housewives to read William Faulkner, turned Cormac McCarthy into a household name, shamed James Frey on camera, got dissed by Jonathan Franzen, and turned 63 books into bestsellers. When Oprah Winfrey started her book club on September 17, 1996, she said her goal was to get people reading. She did... and then some. Oprah's Book Club—online it has two million members—has remained the single greatest publicity tool the business has ever seen. Selection to the club could ignite backlist stalwarts to the top of the charts (see John Steinbeck's East of Eden in 2003 and Elie Wiesel's Night in 2006); push bestsellers ever further up the charts (see Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth in 2007); and, most profoundly, pluck midlist authors and heretofore unknowns from near obscurity (see everyone from Lalita Tademy with Cane River in 2001 to Uwem Akpan with Say You're One of Them in 2009). One publishing insider estimated that Oprah's selections alone generated $500 million in sales for the industry.
But Oprah did a lot more than just make bestsellers through her club—she regularly hosted a variety of authors on her show. Now, with the news that she'll be leaving daytime talk behind in 2011 to take more of a branding role on her new cable network, many in publishing are bracing for the loss. With that in mind, PW asked a number of publicists what they'll miss most about Oprah, aside from the numbers her all-powerful book club could produce.
“We've been wondering when this day would come and quietly anticipating it, but now that it's got a date stamp, it feels like a real blow. It's a huge psychological adjustment, for one thing—some publicists in the industry would count booking an author on Oprah for an hourlong interview as the single greatest achievement of their career. There's never been anyone like Oprah who could galvanize a mass audience to embrace serious literature.”—Victoria Meyer, v-p and executive director of publicity, Simon & Schuster
“It's one less incredibly influential venue for nonfiction authors. When Oprah recommends or firmly believes in a book, her audience completely trusts it will help them in some way and responds accordingly. It's one of the reasons a book like Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach sold millions of copies; she believed in the book and the audience believed in her. It'll be very difficult for any other talk show host to reach that level of implicit trust with their audience.”—Jennifer Romanello, v-p and executive director of publicity, Grand Central
“For a paperback publicist especially, an appearance on Oprah was the brass ring of getting an author known as an expert in his or her field. I realize the follow-up to that sentiment is 'time to get a different ring.' However, replacing Oprah's influence is not so simple. The role of Reader America Trusts was played by her because it was created and maintained by her.”—Sloane Crosley, associate director of publicity, Vintage/Anchor Books
“Publishing will, most of all, miss her advocacy. She has said publicly that books changed her life and she wanted books to change other peoples' lives, and that's often how she came to [the titles] on her show.... What was especially heartening [about her as a media personality] is that many of her book club selections, and some of her other programming choices, were unconventional.”—Paul Bogaards, executive director of publicity, Knopf