Book people tend to speak their mind when Today with Hoda & Jenna cohost Jenna Bush Hager and her book club come up in conversation.

“Jenna has a conspiratorial, generous spirit, which always makes her authors feel like she is their biggest champion. She reads more than I do, by a large margin,” said Emma Straub, the owner of Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic bookstore and author of the 2020 Read with Jenna selection All Adults Here. ”I know it’s hard to tell when someone is on television, but Jenna is the genuine article, and all of us in the book world are lucky to have her.”

Red-hot romantasy author Sarah J. Maas agreed, raving, “I’m so immensely grateful to her for keeping the light of literacy shining in the world. Jenna is an amazing person, and she’s championed books for years.” Five years as of March, to be exact, which Today celebrated with a leap day bash at the posh Manhattan bookstore-bar-café Bibliotheque.

Bush Hager, the daughter of former president George W. Bush, joined NBC’s Today show in 2009 as a correspondent and contributor, and was named cohost of its fourth hour, Today with Hoda & Jenna, in 2019. That year also saw the launch of Read with Jenna, which has since named approximately 70 book club selections.

The bulk of the club’s selections are written by debut or diverse authors, and well over half of them have hit the bestseller lists. More than 30 have been optioned for film or TV, including eight by Bush Hager’s own production company, Thousand Voices. In a publishing era that finds debut fiction difficult to break out, it’s no wonder publishers are so effusive.

Bush Hager recalled the club beginning after a “dare” from Libby Leist, EVP of Today and lifestyle at NBC Universal. “She had seen two conflicting articles, one of which said that people were reading more than ever, and the other saying that my generation wasn’t reading,” Bush Hager said. “I was like, ‘I’m telling you, we’re reading more, and people still love to read. So let me start a book club and see how it goes.’ And the first book, The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin, shot up on Amazon from basically oblivion to number two.”

Since then, Bush Hager has grown increasingly close with the book business from her daytime TV perch. In addition to Read with Jenna, for the past three summers she has run a kid-focused reading initiative, Read with Jenna Jr., that saw her named the national Collaborative Summer Library Program’s Summer Reading Champion in 2023. She also cowrote a children’s book with her twin sister, Barbara, Love Comes First, which hit shelves last year. All the while, she’s worked to build a rapport with agents and editors.

Behind the scenes, Bush Hager is quick to credit Abby Russ, a booking producer at NBC News, for helping the book club to succeed. Russ’s job is perhaps best summed up as the “books booker.” She collaborates with publishers to bring authors onto the air across all of NBC’s platforms and programs, from Meet the Press with Kristen Welker and NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt to all of NBC’s digital and streaming assets. But with four hours of guest-heavy daily programming, the Today show is necessarily the center of Russ’s booking efforts. Bush Hager calls Russ a “magician,” and “the kindest, most organized badass, who comes in and meets with me at the crack of dawn.”

Russ broke into the world of TV journalism as an executive assistant at NBC News in 2017. Like Bush Hager, she also grew up loving to read, she said, but didn’t realize that there might be “some sort of publishing adjacent role” for her in the TV business. Then, in 2018, she joined the booking unit as a researcher. By 2019, she was booking for Today. Now, she’s practically omnipresent at book events, and her relationships in the book business have become instrumental to Read with Jenna’s selection process.

“Abby has really created incredible relationships,” Bush Hager said. “She’s like, ‘You have to go meet Pam Dorman!’ So I sat with Pam, and we had the most incredible conversation. My assistant was like, ‘It’s time for you to go,’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t leave yet. We’ve only just scratched the surface.’ ”

Russ said her position requires “a good sense of the news cycle” and, of course, good judgment. “When a big celebrity is coming out with their memoir, there are really competitive bookings where it’s obvious that you want to have those people on all of our shows and platforms, and make sure you’re winning those interviews for the network,” she said. “But there are also a lot of smaller books that may not be as newsworthy but still offer our viewers something interesting.”

For shows like Holt’s and Welker’s, that often means spotlighting “books written by experts in their field,” Russ said, citing Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation, a book “everyone seems to be talking about right now—and our talent who have younger children are really interested in what he has to say.” For Read with Jenna, which focuses on fiction, Russ’s role is to help find books that match Bush Hager’s tastes and goals and help break out new voices.

“What writers have said to me about this work is that I’m helping them make a name for themselves in something they’ve always dreamed about doing,” Bush Hager said. “Here they are, writing a debut novel and having the platform of the Today show to speak about it. I get some of these letters and I weep. Not only is it something I love doing, but it helps people in this industry I love so much.”

Publishers concur. “It’s not lost on any of us in the industry that it takes a huge amount of effort to bring a love of reading to scale on a national level in the way Jenna and her team have since 2019,” said Marysue Rucci, VP, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the Simon & Schuster imprint Marysue Rucci Books. “Month after month, Read with Jenna has given authors and their works visibility that is the stuff of dreams, changing the trajectories of books and helping authors’ careers. I see their efforts as a labor of love. And as a publisher and fellow book lover, it resonates deeply.”