NEW YORK — For her 100th book club selection, Oprah Winfrey relied on the same instincts she’s relied on all along: Does the story move her? Does he think about it for days afterwards? In a work of fiction, do her characters seem real?
“When I’m not moving forward, that’s always a sign to me that there’s something powerful and moving,” Winfrey told The Associated Press in a recent phone interview.
On Tuesday, she announced that she had chosen Anne Napolitano’s “Hello Beautiful,” a contemporary tribute to “Little Women” from the author of the bestselling “Dear Edward.” The novel was published Tuesday by Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and Winfrey believes the themes of family, resilience and perspective give “Hello Beautiful” a “universal appeal” that makes it a fitting landmark.
A Winfrey pick no longer ensures blockbuster sales, but maintains a special place in the industry. For writers, a call from Winfrey is still like being told they’ve won an Oscar. Winfrey told the AP she was in “awe” of the club and its history, “the very idea” that someone could go buy a copy of “Anna Karenina” just because she suggested it.
Kristen McLean, an analyst at NPD Books who tracks industry sales, says Winfrey is particularly effective these days when she’s promoting a well-known author like Barbara Kingsolver and her novel “Demon Copperhead,” a bestseller since which Winfrey picked up last fall.
Since 1996, Winfrey’s book choices have taken her on a journey of extraordinary influence and success, frequent reinvention and occasional controversy. It has endured through changes for both Winfrey and the publishing industry, the rise of the Internet and the end of Winfrey’s syndicated talk show, through immersions in classic and unexpected lessons about the credibility of memoir and the lack of diversity in book publishing. .
Thanks to Winfrey, contemporary writers like Jacquelyn Mitchard and Jane Hamilton found audiences they never imagined, while selections published decades or even centuries earlier, from “Anna Karenina” to “As I Lay Dying,” hit the charts of bestsellers. Winfrey didn’t invent the mass-market book club, but she showed that spontaneous passion can inspire people in ways that elude the most sophisticated marketing campaigns.
Her more problematic choices — James Frey’s fabricated memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt,” a novel criticized for stereotypical depictions of Mexicans — made so much news in part because of Winfrey’s endorsement.
The club began as an extension of conversations between her and her producer at the time, Alice McGee. They would talk about the books they liked until McGee finally suggested, in 1996, that Winfrey share the experience with her viewers. The first selection, Mitchard’s “The Deep End of the Ocean,” has sold more than 2 million copies. Other books also became major bestsellers, whether by established authors such as Joyce Carol Oates (“We Were the Mulvaneys”) and Toni Morrison (“The Bluest Eye”) or by then-emerging authors such as Janet Fitch and Tawni O’ Dell.
The club was so popular that some suspected it had caught on. Winfrey remembers Quincy Jones asking her, “How much money are they giving you for this book club, baby?” The process was so informal that Winfrey didn’t even bother going through intermediaries at first.
“I would call Wally Lamb,” she says of the author of “She’s Come Undone,” her fourth choice. “In the early stages, I would finish the book and then find the author. When you went to the back of the book, it gives you the bio of the author and will tell you what city the author lives in. And, that’s when we had phone books, in any case I could get the author’s phone number because the author was listed.”
Winfrey’s system is now only slightly more structured. Leigh Newman, Oprah Daily online/print book manager, will call the publisher first and arrange a “surprise call” with the author and Oprah. Winfrey’s staff will investigate the author’s background to make sure nothing problematic — either criminal charges or accusations of plagiarism — comes up. The scrutiny began, Winfrey says, after “A Million Little Pieces” was shown to contain substantial lies, leading to an extraordinary public rebuke from Winfrey when she brought Frey on her show to explain himself. (They have since reconciled).
“I took it so personally,” he says. “I probably shouldn’t have taken it so personally, but I felt it let me down and I let the audience down. … I was like, “Can you believe this is a true story?” and shouting it from the rooftops. I felt stupid for doing it, ashamed for doing it.”
Winfrey’s book choices are still internal and intimate — mostly just determined by herself and Newman — though Winfrey says she made a rare exception for “Hello Beautiful,” which was recommended to her by the president of Creative Arts Agency, Richard Lovett. Otherwise, Newman will look for books she thinks Winfrey can relate to — fiction or nonfiction, as long as the story is “compelling,” Newman explains. Winfrey will find books on her own.
The club doesn’t follow any real recipe. In the early years, Winfrey averaged an option nearly every month, a rate she found exhausting. He stopped the club for much of 2002-2003, focused on older projects in 2004-2005, and other years only picked up one or two titles. After ending her talk show in 2011, she launched Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 the following year, with a focus on digital media.
She currently aims for a new book every eight weeks, with author interviews and interactive reader discussions featured on OprahDaily.com. Winfrey has no plans to stop, no specific goals for options. In the wake of “American Dirt,” which was optioned in early 2020, she had vowed to open herself up “to more Latinx books.” But since then she has not selected anyone for her club and is non-committal about the future.
“I would never choose a book because the author is Hispanic, or Black, or Indian. They’re not going to put me in that box,” he says. “The book has to live on many different levels for me. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t fantastic books by authors of every race and religion. It means I haven’t seen one yet (for the club). But we’re keeping an eye on it and I’ve come close a few times.”
Winfrey’s choices are occasionally influenced by a relatively recent trend – competition.
In recent years, Reese Witherspoon and Jenna Bush Hager have proven they can also win the trust of a large readership, whether it’s with Witherspoon’s early promotion of the Delia Owens blockbuster “Where the Crawdads Sing” or Hager reviving interest for Donna Tartt’s. 1990s bestseller “The Secret History”. The exuberance of young people on TikTok has helped make Colleen Hoover the country’s most popular fiction writer.
Winfrey respects: If she hears that a book she might pick is also being chased by Witherspoon or Hager, she’ll back off and pick another one. But she also claims her position. Yes, Witherspoon, Hager and the BookTok guys are all great, but no one should forget who came first.
“We started this conversation,” he says. “And I’m very, very proud of that.”