“The Oprah Effect”: Oprah’s Book Club Turns Twenty!

It’s hard to believe, but Oprah’s Book Club turns twenty this month. In 1996, the club launched with Oprah’s selection of The Deep End of the Ocean; the announcement and subsequent book discussion skyrocketed sales of the book nearly tenfold. Subsequent selections by Oprah have seen similar sales success, commonly nicknamed “the Oprah Effect,” be they classics or contemporary fiction.

I’ve never been much for reading what I’m told to read, and few things are more disappointing to me as a reader than a book failing to live up to the hype that surrounds it. Because of that, I’ve always approached Oprah’s selections with a bit of hesitation—but I find myself drawn to them nonetheless. I devoured White Oleander before I realized it had the infamous “O” sticker gracing its cover. I adored Anna Karenina, and found myself utilizing some of the club’s resources to keep track of the (massive) list of characters in Tolstoy’s chunky classic. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ books Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude have both been Oprah picks, and both remain favorites of mine to this day.

Oprah’s Book Club goes beyond just reading, though. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the state of bookselling and publishing today without ending up back at that “O” sticker. Like so many others, I was fascinated by the revelation of James Frey’s fabrication of much of his “memoir,” A Million Little Piecesand Oprah called the author (and his publisher) to task for that in her book club interview on her show. And I followed along with rapt attention when the ever-divisive Jonathan Franzen complained publicly about his book being selected for the club.

Oprah took a break from book club management when her show went off the air, but the club came back with new vigor—and a new style—in 2012. Now called “Oprah’s Book Club 2.0,” the club launched with the selection of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and has since continued to select 3 or 4 books a year for readers to devour.  An entire “Books” section of the Oprah website collects videos, interviews, and relevant contextual pieces for each new book selected—and as a reader, these pieces have proven both educational and fascinating.

When Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selected Colson Whitehead’s new book, The Underground Railroad, for its most recent pick last month, the publisher moved the pub date up by a full six weeks (and more than doubled the book’s initial print run)—proof that the “Oprah effect” is in full force, even twenty years in. And though I might not be the most classic example of an Oprah Book Club participant, I certainly can’t wait to see what the next twenty years bring.  

Read more from Kerry McHugh at Entomology of a Bookworm.

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