Stranger Than Fiction: Oprah Was Bad for Book Sales

By encouraging readers to tackle longer, more sophisticated novels, the queen of daytime TV may have caused fiction sales to fall 

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Reuters

For fifteen years, Oprah Winfrey ruled the publishing industry like a benevolent, daytime TV dictator. A recommendation on Oprah's Book Club, which ended its run last year, sent almost any title, new or old, straight to the bestseller list. She could get readers to pick up Faulkner. She could get them to pick up Uwem Akpan. (Who? Exactly.)

But despite her success as a taste-maker, Oprah apparently could not get America to pick up more books. According to a recent study, Oprah's endorsements may have actually hurt fiction sales overall by encouraging her fans to read novels that were longer and more complicated than their usual, less literary fare.

In other words, Oprah made her viewers a little more high brow, and publishers a little bit poorer. Craig Garthwaite, a business professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, looked at the impact of Winfrey's recommendations between 2001 and 2010 using data from Nielsen Bookscan. He found that within a week of being featured on her show, a book's sales shot up an average of 420 percent. Six months later, they were still 160 percent higher than before getting the Oprah seal of approval. Sales of those authors' other titles also increased, albeit less dramatically. 

But while one lucky author got to enjoy the Oprah windfall, Garthwaite found the rest of the industry suffered. In the twelve weeks following a recommendation, overall adult fiction sales fell by 2.5 percent. Mysteries, action novels, and romances saw a combined 5.1 percent decline. 

To try and pinpoint a cause, Garthwaite looked at the average difficulty of Oprah's reading suggestions using measures such as the Gunning Fog Index, which measures sentence length and word complexity. He found that the talkshow maven's picks were, on average, 1.5 grade levels tougher than the median overall best seller. The classics she recommended were four grade levels more advanced. Her choices also tended to be tens of thousands of words longer than other best sellers. So instead of breezing through two or three bodice-rippers, her fans spent some quality time getting to know Anna Karenina.  

All of this also seems to say something about the incentives for the book industry as a whole. That is, it's probably not in publishers' interests to turn difficult, long novels into best sellers. The easier a book is to get through, and the quicker a reader can make it to the next title, the better it is for their bottom line. 

Take the Harry Potter novels. Each release in JK Rowling's series raised overall book sales by 31.7 percent, according to Garthwaite's figures. And despite the fact that grownups loved them, overall adult fiction sales didn't drop when a new Potter title hit shelves. 

The bottom line: Publishers probably prefer it when 12-year-olds tell America what to read, not Oprah. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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