When Oprah Winfrey, then the brightest star on daytime TV, began her book club in 1996, inexpensive e-books and e-readers seemed more futurist rumor than everyday reality. Social media could have meant friendly reporters.
Now, as Winfrey, co-owner of a struggling cable network, launches Oprah's Book Club 2.0, she's seeking a literary home on a digital landscape. Comparing today's fragmented do-it-yourself media with the world of 1996 is like comparing Winfrey's 42-acre estate near Santa Barbara, Calif., with her birthplace amid the rural poverty of Kosciusko, Miss.
Publishers and booksellers cheer her club's revival, despite questions whether the new Winfrey, with a much smaller TV audience, carries the influence of the old Winfrey, who turned 70 books into best sellers.
On Sunday, Winfrey's interview with memoirist Cheryl Strayed, the first author chosen for the new book club, airs on OWN's Super Soul Sunday (11 a.m. ET/PT) and simultaneously stream on Oprah Radio and on OWN'S Facebook page. (OWN is short for Oprah Winfrey Network.)
Ratings show that the audience for Winfrey's weekly show Super Soul averaged only 114,000 viewers in the past month -- a sliver of her more than 5 million to 6 million viewers when her daily syndicated show ended its 25-year run last year. At its peak, The Oprah Winfrey Show averaged 12 million viewers.
What hasn't changed is how Winfrey, America's favorite reader, reacts when she loves a book.
This spring, she read Strayed's inspirational memoir, Wild, about the author's solo 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother, the destruction of her marriage and experimentation with heroin.
Winfrey, who says she read Wild in part in hardcover and on her Kindle and iPad, writes in the July issue of O, the Oprah Magazine: "I love this book. I want to shout it from the mountaintop. I want to shout it from the Web I knew I had to reinvent my book club."
She still moves product
On June 1, Winfrey announced an interactive and multi-platform book club that uses Twitter, Facebook, Storify and GroupMe. Readers can post questions that Winfrey and Strayed answer in videos. The print editions of Wild carry a new version of the familiar "O" book club logo. The special e-book includes Winfrey's notes on her favorite passages.
Sales of Wild, which was well-reviewed upon its March release, spiked. Within two weeks of Winfrey's announcement, Wild went from No. 165 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list to No. 14. It's now No. 35.
Publisher Knopf reports that sales of Wild have jumped from 85,000 before Winfrey's announcement to 270,000 (150,000 print books, 120,000 e-books). Knopf has printed 280,000 copies of the book.
In the club's heyday, before e-books took off, publishers would print more than 500,000 extra copies of any book Winfrey selected. Twenty -- including her first, The Deep End of the Ocean, Jacquelyn Mitchard's novel about the kidnapping of a child, and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy's tragic 19th-century love story, in 2004 -- hit No. 1 on USA TODAY's list. Forty-one of her other selections landed in the list's top 10.
Barnes & Noble's marketing chef Patricia Bostelman says comparisons are difficult "because of all the changes in the marketplace," but she says Wild is selling better than Winfrey's final selections from her old book club, in 2010: two Charles Dickens novels, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.
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