Oprah ponders book club as she announces 100th pick

NEW YORK — For her pick for the 100th book club, Oprah Winfrey relied on the same instincts she relied on from the beginning: Does the story move her? Does she think about it for days? In a novel, do the characters appear real to you?

“When I’m not going on, it’s always a sign to me that there’s something powerful and moving,” Winfrey said in a recent phone interview with The Associated Press.

On Tuesday, she announced that she chose Ann Napolitano’s “Hello Beautiful,” a modern-day tribute to “Little Women” from the best-selling author Dear Edward. The novel was published Tuesday by Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and Winfrey believes its themes of family, resilience and perspective give Hello Beautiful a “universal appeal” that makes it a true landmark.

A Winfrey pick no longer generates blockbuster sales but retains special status within the industry; For writers, getting a call from Winfrey still feels like telling them they’ve won an Oscar. Winfrey told the AP that she was “in awe” of the club and its history, “the very notion” that someone could go and buy a copy of “Anna Karenina” just because she suggested it.

Kristen McLean, an analyst at NPD Books that tracks industry sales, says Winfrey is particularly effective these days when promoting a well-known author like Barbara Kingsolver and her novel Demon Copperhead, a best-selling novel since Winfrey published it last fall has selected.

Since 1996, Winfrey’s book choices have taken her on a journey of extraordinary influence and success, frequent reinvention and occasional controversy. It has weathered changes for both Winfrey and the publishing industry, with the rise of the internet and the demise of Winfrey’s syndicated talk show, immersion in the classics and unexpected lessons about the reliability of memoirs and the lack of diversity in book publishing.

Thanks to Winfrey, contemporary authors like Jacquelyn Mitchard and Jane Hamilton found audiences they never dreamed of, while titles published decades or even centuries before, from Anna Karenina to As I Lay Dying, topped the Bestseller lists landed. Winfrey didn’t invent the mass-market book club, but she did show that spontaneous passion can inspire people in ways that elude the most sophisticated marketing campaigns.

Her toughest decisions — James Frey’s fabricated memoir A Million Little Pieces, Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a novel criticized for stereotyping Mexicans — grabbed so much headlines in part because of the spotlight of a Winfrey endorsement.

The club began as an extension of conversations between her and her then-producer, Alice McGee. They talked about the books they liked until finally, in 1996, McGee suggested that Winfrey share her experiences with her viewers. The first choice, Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean, has sold more than 2 million copies. Other books have also become major bestsellers, whether by established authors like Joyce Carol Oates (“We Were the Mulvaneys”) and Toni Morrison (“The Bluest Eye”) or by then-rising writers like Janet Fitch and Tawni O’Dell.

The club was so popular that some suspected a catch. Winfrey recalls Quincy Jones asking her, “How much money are they paying you for this book club, baby?” The process was so informal that Winfrey didn’t even bother to contact intermediaries at first.

“I would just say Wally Lamb,” she says of the writer of her fourth choice, She’s Come Undone. “In the beginning I would finish the book and then find the author. If you were to go to the end of the book, it would give you the author’s biography and it would tell you what city the author lives in. And that’s when we had phone books, I could always get the author’s phone number because the author was listed.”

Winfrey’s system is only slightly more structured now. Leigh Newman, book director of the online/print publication Oprah Daily, will first call the publisher and set up a “surprise call” with the author and Oprah. Winfrey staff will research the author’s background to ensure nothing problematic arises – whether criminal charges or allegations of plagiarism. The review began, Winfrey says, after “A Million Little Pieces” was revealed to contain significant untruths, leading to an extraordinary public scolding from Winfrey as she brought Frey back onto her show to explain herself. (They have since reconciled).

“I took it so personally,” she says. “I probably shouldn’t have taken it so personally, but I felt like he let me down and I let the audience down. … I was the one who said, ‘Can you believe this is a true story?’ and screaming from the rooftops. I felt stupid doing it and embarrassed doing it.”

Winfrey’s book choices are still in-house and intimate — largely determined solely by her and Newman — though Winfrey says she made a rare exception for Hello Beautiful, which was recommended to her by Creative Arts Agency president Richard Lovett. Otherwise, Newman will look for books that she thinks Winfrey might respond to — fiction or nonfiction, as long as the story is “compelling,” Newman explains. Winfrey will also come across books of her own.

The club doesn’t follow any real formula. For the early years, Winfrey averaged a pick almost every month, a pace that she found tiring over time. She paused the club for much of 2002-2003, concentrating on older works in 2004-2005 and only picking a track or two in other years. After her talk show ended in 2011, the following year she launched Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 with a focus on digital media.

She is currently aiming for a new book every eight weeks, with author interviews and interactive reader discussions to be presented on OprahDaily.com. Winfrey has no plans to quit and no specific goals for the selection. After American Dirt was picked in early 2020, she had vowed to open up “to more Latinx books.” But she hasn’t picked one for her club since and hasn’t committed to the future.

“I would never choose a book because the author is Hispanic, Black or Indian. I’m not going to be put in that box,” she says. “For me, the book has to live on many different levels. That doesn’t mean there aren’t fantastic books by authors of every race and creed. It means I haven’t seen one yet (for the club). But we’re thinking about it and I’ve come close a couple of times.”

Winfrey’s decisions are sometimes influenced by a relatively new trend – competition.

In recent years, Reese Witherspoon and Jenna Bush Hager have proven that they too can win the trust of a wide range of readers, whether through Witherspoon’s early endorsement of Delia Owen’s blockbuster Where the Crawdads Sing or Hager’s renewed interest in Donna Tartts 1990s bestseller The Secret Story. The exuberance of young people on TikTok helped make Colleen Hoover the country’s most popular novelist.

Winfrey is respectful: when she hears that a book she might choose is also being pursued by Witherspoon or Hager, she’ll step back and choose another. But she also claims her place. Yes, Witherspoon, Hager and the BookTok kids are all great, but let’s not forget who came first.

“We started this conversation,” she says. “And I’m very, very proud of that.”

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