Friday, June 8, 2012

Yay, the Oprah Book Club lives!

Are you as excited about the return of the Oprah Book Club as I am? I know that among the literary, it's cool to hate on Oprah (I'm looking at you,Jonathan Franzen) but I think it's one of the very best things (if not THE best) that's happened to book publishing in the last twenty years.

When she started back in 1997, I was working at Bookstar (a B&N), and the first month we had no idea what was going on when suddenly dozens of dazed-looking people started wandering in and asking about a hardcover novel that was almost a year old. Even two and three books later, it was still startling each month (this was before the pre-shipping) when the mob of people would all start asking about the same book. But the best thing about it (and the reason these people looked so dazed) was that at least half of them would say things like "I haven't been in a bookstore in twenty years," or "I haven't read a book in thirty years." Those of us who were working for peanuts just for the privilege of spending our days and nights surrounded by books (and the employee discount!) choked back our sobs and thanked Oprah vociferously for getting people reading again!

Some of these people truly got hooked.  They'd read one, then the next, then they'd read one just right after she'd announced it... and they'd have a month to wait for the next assignment. And sometimes they'd come in the store and say, "I really liked Stones from the River, can you tel me what else I can read that's like that?" And we'd start talking to them. Ursula Hegi has several other books, we'd mention, were you looking for something particularly related to the holocaust? Did you also like the Ruth Hamilton book? And we'd direct our new reader to other books we thought she'd like, and we might have just helped make an entirely new reader. Oprah didn't just get people reading better books - she completely and single-handedly expanded the book-buying populace dramatically!

When snooty people scoff at Oprah books as being lightweight or fluffy, I usually start off my asking, "Well, have you read The Reader by Berndard Schlink? Well, it's translated from the German..." and I wouldn't even usually have to finish my sentence as that clause alone will make most snob's jaw drop in shock. Although that completely undeserved reputation continued for years, even as she assigned Dickens and Faukner (in my opinion, it was Faulkner, not Franzen, who killed the first iteration of the book club. Faulkner is barely understood by academics - and not because of his brilliance in my opinion but his opaqueness - and really shouldn't be foisted on anyone at all, including unwilling college students.)

Later, when I worked at Ingram Book Group, every month when we found out which publisher had the new Oprah book, my coworker Jason would try to figure out what the book was. When it was my month, it was pretty easy since Avon Books didn't publish many books that were of the right type (most of them WERE fluffy), but he had a remarkable track record for at least two years. (All we knew was the price, if it was hardcover or paperback, and the publisher.) We all appreciated the Oprah book club for the phenomenon that it was. At St. Martin's, when my department had a book that came very, very close to being picked but wasn't, it was heartbreaking (that's when I found out that with each selection, Oprah would actually pick 2-3 books as possibilities and her people would notify the publishers so they'd have enough time to get everything in place, but then we got the call that went "Sorry..." instead of "Start the presses!" Sad day.)

I am thrilled she's starting the book club back! I already has Wild on my to read list after a childhood friend had given it a raving review on Facebook a few weeks ago, and now I'll be sure to read it to help show the success of the 2.0 book club, so she'll keep doing it. I might even finally figure out if I get the OWN channel on my cable lineup!

Thank you Oprah. I'm glad you're back.

1 comment:

Carolyn Abiad said...

She is the reigning king-maker. I'm also glad she promotes hardcover books because if she said: "Go out and get an e-reader", we'd be toast.