In 2008, Little, Brown & Co. published Say You’re One of Them, by Nigerian Jesuit priest and writer Uwem Akpan. The debut short-story collection garnered positive reviews and, in its first year, sold respectably – about 77,000 copies.
The following year, Oprah Winfrey chose it as a book-club selection on her network talk show – and sales exploded to nearly 800,000 copies.
Akpan, of course, was just one of dozens of literary beneficiaries of the Oprah Effect.
Four days after she touted James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, for example, 85,000 new copies had been sold.
That endorsement was subsequently revoked, after Frey acknowledged embellishing several sections of the book. But the novel still sold well enough to cinch second place among Winfrey’s 70 book club selections.
According to Fordham University marketing professor Al Greco, the Winfrey imprimatur was ultimately responsible for selling more than 55 million books.
During the book club’s 15 years on the air – it and the show ended their run in May 2011 – an “O” recommendation was expected to generate a minimum half-million in sales for every new book.
That’s the vicinity in which Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance – the only two Canadian titles endorsed by Oprah – are believed to have sold.
“The boost for them was extremely significant,” recalls Douglas Pepper, president and publisher of McClelland & Stewart. “Oprah’s influence was huge. There’s been nothing online or off that could parallel it. It was a phenomenon and obviously a good thing for the industry. And it’s been missed.”
Now, North American publishers and booksellers are hoping that Winfrey can wave her magic marketing wand a second time.
Her latest literary venture – Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, a joint project of her OWN TV network and O Magazine – launched earlier this month.
If it can duplicate the success of the original, it could provide the struggling book-publishing industry with a much-needed stimulus.
With her network podium dismantled, Oprah’s new target audience is all web-based.
OBC 2.0 calls itself “an interactive, multi-platform reading club that harnesses the power of social media, bringing passionate readers together to discuss inspiring stories.”
Its first selection was already a bestseller – Cheryl Strayed’s Wild:From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir of a transformative, 1,100-mile solo hike from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. But since Oprah’s recommendation, the book has cemented its hold on the upper rungs of the non-fiction bestseller charts.
“Oprah continues to have a very strong following and remains a huge brand herself,” says Tracey Turriff, Random House Canada’s senior vice president of marketing.
True, the ratings for her cable TV network have not been impressive. In fact, as Greco points out, this time around it may be the book club that gives a boost to her flagging broadcast venture. Whatever happens to her TV property, though, he says, “an ‘Oprah Book Club Selection’ still generates attention.”
And this time, the books themselves will have a broader reach. In a nod to the digital world, books endorsed by Oprah will now come in two forms – not just the conventional hard copy with the familiar Oprah Book Club seal, but a digital eBook version.
The latter will include Winfrey’s own comments about the book, as well as a reader’s guide. Buyers will be encouraged to share their own ideas or post questions to the author via social media or post to Winfrey’s website. OBC 2.0 will also provide lots of extra features: video answers to reader questions; weekly webisodes featuring Winfrey and the author; a mobile messaging app, GroupMe, allowing readers to create their own mini book clubs; and links to Storify, a website that amasses tweets, Instagram photos and Facebook postings.
A full-scale Oprah interview with the author will also be simulcast live on Oprah.com and on OWN’s Facebook page.
Now all viewers need to do is click and buy.